Small Things

Foreseasonal Experiences

You know that crisp, cool day, just before the heat of summer yields its scorching temperatures, that seems to come out of nowhere to remind us that fall is around the corner. There is at least one of these “foreseasonal” days towards the end of each season. It’s like the universe’s way of giving us a heads up that something new is coming.

I realized a couple decades ago that this gift of the universe is not exclusive to seasons. For every significant experience in my life, there have been similar moments of peering forward that let me know where I was headed. I remember riding up the elevator of The Baltimore Sun ~ I’m not sure if it was a particular smell, or the way the light was reflecting off of the stainless trim on the elevator door, but I do know that in that moment I heard an internal voice say, “I will be working here sometime soon.” Sure enough, within a few months I was. I am guessing that I am not the only one with these semi-psychic experiences. I am also assuming that this phenomenon is not reserved for individuals, but can be more generalized.

I was at the wedding of two community changers in Baltimore recently. I am only semi-sentimental. Well, that is a semi-lie. But I certainly don’t cry when there is nothing but the architecture of ceremony to evoke emotion. This was different. Really different. It was a perfect day. Billowing white clouds. The temperature was warm enough to hold you, with a breeze that kissed you cool just when you needed to feel it. The setting was an absurdly enchanting place ~ The Cloisters. It looked like a full scale gingerbread castle, with a glistening slab mica schist roof ~ impossibly heavy, and absolutely eatable. Flowers abounded, bursting out of the earth like I remember from my childhood visit to Hawaii. And the people were as radiant and multicolored as the flora. It was as if the gods said that it was ok for babylon to fall, just for this moment, to remind us of what we can be.

The children ran carefree, with flowing dresses and little suits, allowing all the adults to care for them as if they were their dearest aunts and uncles. As the African Drums announced the procession, time stopped to watch. The drummers were dark, beautiful and strong. A stilted glowing white bird emerged from the castle reaching six feet above the heads of the procession. Then came the fathers with their daughters perched upon their shoulders, both adorned with huge flowered robes that flowed to the ground. The girls distributed paper cranes, flower pedals, and rainbowed bubbles throughout the gathering. Feathered girls and tassle-capped boys followed ~ faces shining with the spectacle.

The procession opened. A sound emerged that pulled open my heart to its breaking point as it moved through my soul. Radant Sisters, adorned in Gomesi and other traditional garb, hands opened to the heavens, moved and sang in harmonic waves as though our lives depended upon their song. Everyone, to the smallest baby was as still as a tree.

When the song fell silent, Mark and Rebecca emerged, holding hands, joining their many worlds together. A Black, revolutionary healer, with a White, Jewish, creative, facing each other under a flowing chuppah held by witnesses honoring the four corners of the globe. They spoke intimate truth to each other and to us. They laughed and cried as we echoed the emotional honesty. In that foreseasonal moment, the world was in peace.

We all knew it ~
and the tears flowed free throughout the cloistered garden.

It does not matter that the summer’s heat has returned. Nor is it important that the divisions that set us apart in this post babylonian age, continue to tear at the fabric of humanity. I know, that this moment was a remembering forward, that we as humans will find a way to hear the song the Sisters sing again, and that we will learn their ways and weave the torn pieces of beautiful and tattered fabric together into a quilted tapestry that will cover, protect and adorn us all.

The Human Club Card

Weening myself from four wheels to two has been transformative in so many ways. But the most significant shifts were totally unexpected. When I got on my motorcycle I began to notice that the world treated me a bit differently. First, I noticed that just being on a bike entered you into the exclusive club of bikers. As a Black man, I grew up with warnings of danger regarding the marauding packs of leather- and denim-clad bike gangs, flying the colors of the Hells Angels and other endearing nomenclature, riding threateningly down Route 73 on which we lived. You can imagine my surprise as folk looking the same way began to extend a low, left-handed wave as we passed each other. Equally surprising were the cops. Having experienced my share of DWBs (driving while black), one resulting in being handcuffed for hours outside of Cleveland, surrounded by 6 squad cars, I had developed an enemy view of blue. Upon mounting the iron horse, traffic cops were stopping oncoming cars to assist me getting across intersections, they would gesture me to proceed ahead of them as we faced off at a light. They would walk up and start conversations, asking jokingly if they could take  my bike for a spin. These club card benefits were well more than I had bargained for.

The other shift was from just plain folk whom I didn’t know, seeing me carrying my helmet, would start a conversation about riding. Most of these people didn’t even ride. And as the conversation would come to an end, they would inevitably say, “Be safe out there”, with the sweetness of a family member. Who knew? Somehow, being close to death called folks to be kind ~ even if the danger was chosen.

Saturday, my bike broke down on the side of the highway. I was sitting there for hours waiting for a tow truck. While I was on the phone, an off-duty cop pulled over and got out of his truck and asked me if there was anything he could do to help. He followed his offer with “I’m a rider.” Shortly after that, a wiry white dude, totally covered in fading skull, snake, and pin-up girl tattoos got out of his 4-by and said he would go back home and get his pick-up and take me home.  He followed his kindness with, “I’m a rider.” It is amazing to me that it is this easy to create a bridge between cultures that have been assigned diametric opposition in our social construct.

It is all about employing a very thin point of association. What if, instead of two wheels serving as the catalyst, we simply use being human as the connecting point that we all share. What if we all gave that nod of acknowledgement every time we passed a human. What if we, seeing a human on the side of the road, automatically stopped to offer our help, just cause they belonged to the human club. What if we told everyone we met to “be safe out there” as we acknowledged just how close to death and vulnerable we all are. Let’s just create a Human Club Card, give it to everyone, and act like we care ~ just for the hell of it. And when the recipient of our kindness gives that quizzical look of disbelief, we simply say, “I’m a human.”

Disturbing The Peace

I have kids ~ I also love kids, they remind me to be hopeful. It also pains me to no end that the world we are giving to the next generations is operating in support of so few, and ecologically deteriorating at a rate that makes me worry about my own elderlife, no less the future for those to come.

There is a better way. But we have to build an imagination that shifts the direction of this hopeless trajectory we are on. We must collectively visualize and believe that things can change ~ we must see that change in order for it to manifest. Let us call this future PEACE. Jimi Hendrix said, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.” This is the formula for the shift.

It is really that simple.

I was sitting with Susan Hailman, the person whom I hold up as the example of integrity when ever the opportunity presents itself ~ which is quite often. We were discussing the absence of limits of greed that is the hallmark of this time in which we live. It is embarrassing to be a human. Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu, also had another answer over 2600 years ago. Lao-Tzu offered, “He who knows he has enough is rich.” Susan said, we need to introduce the understanding of ENOUGH! She’s right. I am sure you will hear more from her on this, so definitely stay tuned.

As an idealist, I have come to believe that change, even massive change, at the level of what we speak here, is possible. I also believe, as is evident from the title of this blog, that each of us holds the power to move the entire planet. We rarely exercise this power, so things move in the direction of the prevailing trajectory ~ social and environmental decay. It is time to trouble these troubled waters. So what can we do to shift this reality? We need to make the change ourselves ~ with every ounce of integrity we have. The change is mostly within our imaginations. As the prophetesses En Vogue once said, “Free your mind and the rest will follow!” Here are the three ingredients to beginning this work.

First we must create in our imaginations a compelling vision of peace. To me, peace is the state of actualizing our collective responsibility to ensure that everyone is OK. As I was writing this, I observed a Black woman in the coffee shop who was struggling to attempt to carry two large drinks from the counter to her table while trying to juggle her clutch purse at the same time. She had to leave one of the drinks. Without a word, a Asian sister who clearly didn’t know the woman, picked up the other cup and followed her to the table, delivered the left item, then simply walked away. That is my vision of peace. Yeah, that was just a coffee cup. But the message behind the act is the transformative genius. “I will be your hands.” The fact that these two individuals were demographically different drives home the point that race and other forms of perceived difference is simply a myth that masks the truth that we belong to eachother. Imagine if this way of being spread across the planet with the same compelling power as capitalism.

The two other ideas that need to be engaged are those spoken by Jimi and Lao-Tzu. We must raise our level of loving above our need to fill the emptiness we feel. What I mean by love is our knowledge that we are not individual beings, but cells comprising the same organism ~ earth. Would a body try to accumulate all of the blood for only its head? We must also learn to operate in a state of enough. Enough is about balance. It means we can actualize our potential ~ both as individuals, and collectively. Over-consumption is a sign of insecurity. What are the “minimum specs” we need to reach our potential? What would it take to be willing to trim down to that scale and release the power of enough to engage our true wealth. How do we use the residual resources to “lend our hands” to others to ensure their ability to reach their potential? This is how we create peace through our lives.

One last little thought. Imagine if the worst crime committed was disturbing the peace ~ being out of balance with the flow of resources to create peace. What would the world look like? How much the richer we would all be. Maybe that insatiable hunger for more, and the accompanying feeling emptiness inside, would disappear.

Blackbird

I walked into the restaurant and over to the bar and greeted the bartender. My eye was caught by a slightly familiar, partially balding man who seemed to recognize me. The memory slowly returned as I moved to the corner of the bar where he was purched. We had talked about the music the last time we met. I had played a few songs. He smelled our era through the lyrics and chord choices. He said he was about to go to some music festival, a throwback to the post Woodstock days when 3-day festivals filled with unshowered hippies abounded. They have apparently returned, only now the young tiedyed dervishes were munching on ecstasy, not mushrooms and acid as was the trend in our day some 35 years ago. He loved the music, he said, “And besides that,” he smiled, “I still love the young girls.” His words hung silently in the air between us.

Tears pushed out of my throat and down my cheeks as I reached the first-third mark of the 90 minute soul masterpiece, Blackbird, at the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore just days before. I am not really a theater aficionado, though I have taken in enough professional and amateur performances to judge what moves my soul. I finally began to understand the deep and painful mystery that had illuded comprehension these 35 years of emerging manhood. It is the deepest reason that I haven’t been able to trace the source of so many women’s rage. It has been violently suppressed ~ to protect men from taking responsibility for our acts, and to provide cover for our ability to continue to perpetrate sexual violence against girls and women.

Blackbird takes on this reality in an unbridled form, laying bare a brutally honest view of the complexity of this all-to-pervasive reality for women. The brilliant writing peels back each emotional layer, exposing a story that gradually coils the stomach as it weaves the context of this hidden, ugly truth. Blackbird leaves no room for the simple duality of understanding we men long for in stories that have a villain and damsel in distress. It forces our face into the mirror of our own complicity, revealing the collusion we have with the continuation of this unbearable, silent pain that has been carried by our daughters, our girlfriends, our wives, our mothers, since the beginning of time.

I left feeling embarrassed, that as a “conscious” man, how unconscious I have been for so long about this reality, and how ever subtly, I have ~ and virtually every man I know has ~ helped to build this invisible prison in which girls are forced to live. There is no passageway out of this sentence. If you tell the truth, you are pulled into the light of ignominy. If you remain silent, you remain in a purgatory of perpetually reliving the violence in the isolation of suppressed or conscious memory. Even if they have never been touched inappropriately, we see the eyes of men of all ages lingering too long in the calculation of their thoughts that form the cave of isolation in which these acts are conceived and committed, and are silenced by the shame and fear that keeps them locked within our sisters, to carry alone in their souls for a lifetime.

It is without question that I recommend that each and every man see this play, and in particular, this performance if possible. Megan Anderson and David Parkes offer a window into the silent scream of integrating the incomprehensible that, if you are courageous enough to face, will leave you changed ~ hopefully.

As a young woman stood waiting in the line to be seated at the restaurant, the dark, drooping stare of this all-too-typical man hung locked below her head, scanning up and down her exposed legs and sundress. I felt the sick feeling well across my soul as the silent, “harmless” violation took place right in front of me. Thankful now, to have some medicine to offer in response to the illness I witnessed. As he was leaving the restaurant I called him back for a moment, “Hey man, have you seen Blackbird at the Everyman Theatre?” “Its the most powerful 90 minutes I have experienced in, maybe, ever. Take some of your boys and definitely check it out.”

“Oh, no, I definitely will, thanks man!” Thank you Everyman, for the courage to stage this amazing work. And thank you Megan Anderson, for the courage and power to bring this truth into the light!

Epilogue: The Cell Revisited

Overkill

For those that didn’t read the last post entitled The Cell, my phone got jacked a couple weeks ago. I didn’t rush out to replace it. It was a bit of a test, and a bit of a strategy. Thus far I have gone two weeks without my iPhone. I learned at least three things:

  • How much I depend upon my phone for a false sense of companionship or distraction. I want it to be neither, seconds are too precious. Definitely shifted that relationship.
  • I depend upon my phone to stay in touch with critical people in my life ~ both for my soul and my work. This is what I want it to do. As Jackie Boone suggests, it is a life-saver for this, as well as a fabulous tool. But so is a jack hammer, and I don’t use that to brush my teeth.
  • Finally, I use it to keep my many pieces in order, and as a tool to store “little ideas”… Given the challenges of my style, this has been a critical asset for the time I have owned it, one week after it’s release.

Sweetly, old friend and creative partner, Dennis Boni, hearing that I lost the phone, blessed me with his first-generation iPhone (prophetically, the one pictured in the previous post) that he wasn’t using following his upgrade to the 3GS. This is plenty for me to do what needs to be done. Thanks Den! The rest I will do with my peeps rather than my phone!

Sankofa Bird ~ Symbolizing Looking Backward to Move Foward

This time and space without this tool has provided me with a welcome upgrade to my operating system and the invaluable lesson, sometimes we need to downgrade to upgrade.

The Cell: Are They Really Our Friends

It was churchtime Sunday morning. I religiously pulled out my aging Power Book at the Starbucks after puring my brown libation into the receptacle beneath the carved silver goddess of the sea, stirring in just enough cream to take the edge off. There were a few couples, and a handful of solo fellow worshipers. Each of them actively accompanied by their electronic companions ~ looking longingly at them, stroking them gently, like lovers.

My iPhone got jacked out of my car last week. Mistakenly left her alone for one night in my complex’s garage and the evildoers abducted her. They broke the big, expensive window. Is there no honor amongst thieves these days? Called AT&T. No upgrade til June. So I am using this lame flip with a keypad the size of my left thumb. I had to grow nails to be able to push the buttons. All day, I’m missing my friend…

Wow ~ do I really feel like I lost a friend? Answer — Yes. It is crazy.

My daughter, 13, just walked in to meet me. In typical teen style she plops down across from me, without saying hello, pulls out her laptop. 2 minutes later she is leaning her head over our touching laptop screens demanding, at the far boarder of frustration, “I NEED INTERNET”, cause she can’t get her newly purchased Starbucks card to give up the web. Its a beautiful day, and here we sit ~ tethered to these machines.

How did these machines push their way past human relationship for the number one seat?

Michael invited me down to a latin jazz performance the other night. He was with a couple friends ~ grown-ups. Mid conversation, one was texting incessantly under the table like a schoolgirl in her desk as if we couldn’t see, saying, “this is rude, isn’t it?” She didn’t stop.

I heard Larry King once describe the hardest part of quitting his addiction to smoking was that it felt like loosing his best friend. He said butts are right there keeping you company when you want to be alone, they act like your wingman, keeping you feelin’ “Kool” when you are in public, and are the perfect partner for a drink or a cup of coffee. As smoking has been banished from our living and working spaces, our portable d-vices have become the new cigarettes ~ and it seems we are all having click-fits.

I am struggling not to replace my iPhone. Not even because there is a new one coming out in a minute. I don’t like the hold it has on me. I haven’t had a drag in a decade for the same reason. Still love em both.

At the same latin jazz show, the sister with the phone said that she was a “military intelligence” pro, soon to be working in “Northern Virginia”. I asked what she will be doing hoping this would be my first encounter with a real spy ~ at least that I know of. Turns out she will be amongst those to decide which countries get the new 83 Million dollar stealth jet that can take of and land anywhere like a helo.

Wow ~ what goes into a decision like that?

Her proud response ~ “Five years of training.” Comforting. I told her I was glad that a woman was making that decision, particularly one with a 1-year-old child. I asked her to include him, and every other child on the planet, as she parses the equation.

Daniel J Gerstle, founder of Helo Magazine, informed me that helo is what they call choppers in the world of relief work. Not sure if it’s pronounced “hell-o” or “heal-o”. Guess that depends on which application we are referring to. Won’t it be lovely when healing is the only application of our most elegant and efficient technologies.

At what point do machines deserve to be treated as our friends?

My emerging answer: When they give life rather than taking from it. I’m out of this cell ~ going to hang with my beautiful daughter on this lovely day. Leaving you with some peaceful green from the Helo crew…

Upgrading Our Operating System

Everything has an operating system ~ a set of rules govern how things flow ~ whether conscious or unconscious. Take water as an example. It will always seek the lowest point to rest. Its nature is to flow downward until it can no longer find a way deeper. For people, that operating system is based on our internalized system of beliefs that form the way we construct our relationship to the world. These beliefs are formed by our experiences, particularly early influences such as parents and other relations who provide feedback to us about us. We form our approach to relating to, or managing, the world around us based upon these beliefs. Once formed, our operating system is incredibly difficult to change.

Part of becoming an adult is taking responsibility for the way in which we interact with the world. But for most of us, this process is unconscious. If it remains unconscious, it will become more and more entrenched the same way that the constant flow of water along the same path will eventually produce a Grand Canyon. If we engage our will and the support of others, we can make fundamental changes to the way we operate by shifting our vision, our beliefs, our communication, our values, and our actions which will eventually shift our conditioned way of approaching the world.

In a recent “Bones” session with a client, unpacking a relational challenge she was experiencing, the difference between operating out of fear and out of love came up in contrasting the way that men and women are conditioned in this culture to deal with problems. Inevitably, through facilitating the Bones guidance work, one cannot help but reflect on one’s own association to what arises. It became clearer to me, that although my life’s work and personal desire is to move out of love, just how much of my relational orientation is still trapped within the archetypal male operating system which is anchored in control and competition ~ in essence ~ FEAR. Yes, men are fundamentally afraid ~ even we who project that we are enlightened and in touch with our feminine side. This seemed like a revelation to me. But my love would gently tell you if asked, she has been trying to get me to see this for years. It is so difficult to see ourselves, particularly if we are moving from what appears to be our strengths. We have to engage with others and have the courage to ask for feedback in order to understand and then alter our operating systems. The smarter we are, the harder it seems, as we toy around with the window dressing without addressing who we really see through the looking glass.

The challenge is, we have relied upon this operating system for our survival and identity formation since our first moment of self-consciousness. Our survival system screams “DANGER” if we even think of adjusting our fundamental paradigm, and we instinctively retreat into our standard operating procedures. Even as we become conscious, we will construct a complex set of devices to make ourselves think we are being different, when really, we are just doing the same thing a different way so that it looks to ourselves (and maybe others) that we are doing something different.

As an example, I saw myself as incompetent as a child due in large to my ADD and Dyslexia. My initial way of controlling my circumstances was to be a clown which would distract and endear others, preventing them from identifying my incompetence. Much later in life, I figured out that I that I was kind of smart, and shifted my operating system to exhibiting the areas in which I was smart. This worked to reinforce my own sense of self by isolating my interactions to my strengths, but it never really addressed the fear of being exposed. So the underlying driver remained hiding my inadequacy ~ it is just the strategy that changed.

My partner has done more to unearth a path to really freeing this core belief than any other single influence. Her operating system is to love what is flawed. This regularly sends my internal operating mechanisms into chaos as my operating system attempts to hide my flaws, as my desire to love and be loved attempts reveal them to her. My operating system usually wins. But its grip is starting to slip after 8 years of internal back flips.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Thus, the chaotic feeling is the sign that something is shifting. It is our job to both continue to function, and to hang in with the chaotic anxiety long enough to get the lesson at the same time.


Though water is water, if we add heat to it, it becomes free of its standard operating system and becomes a vapor that can rise into the sky in the form of clouds, or if we cool it enough, it will form hexagonal patterns of frost on our windows. We too can add light to the shadows of our operating system, and illuminate and free up our standard ways of being to choose to move beyond unnecessary fear toward connection. The truth is, our fear keeps our power encased in a useless dance of distancing and control. Let us instead, choose to embrace our flaws, our hidden places, and see what amazing patterns will emerge if we just chill out. Time to UpGrade…

Balancing Scales

I recently went before a group of folks from a foundation to pitch the idea for The Bench That Gives. The two big push backs were the scale of the endeavor, and the evidence or proof that what we are creating can work. I was told that what is needed is to produce 10s of thousands of jobs, and that it was a nice idea, but what can an handful of folk geared up to produce benches and other products achieve.

My knee-jerk response was defensive ~ trying to show that this is just a start and that as we brought more businesses into partnership to create more of the model, we would eventually reach scale. But this response does not honor what I know to be true, nor the intuitive evidence that underlies this initiative. I tossed around all night. What came to me in the wee hours, was to really listen to what I know ~ the concept that this blog is based upon ~ that it is not only huge efforts that create change, little efforts with big visions and integrity have the power to reach critical mass.

The power of an idea is not in its grandness, it is in its ability to be lifted and carried by many people. Therefore, by design, it must be small, compelling, apprehensible, and able to be transferred by those moved by it.

Seth Stevens, CWGI Advisor, retail genius, and proprietor of the successful Mount Washington Wine Company and Dogma took me out on a selling trip to introduce me to the retail products business. Seth had coached me on producing some stunning leave-behind sales materials including a spec sheet with the color pics of the bench. Our first stop was an up-scale garden center in “The County”. Seth began by saying a couple words about the bench, and I followed with an equally brief description of the project. Seth nodded to me to pull out the spec sheet. When the woman at the shop saw the pics, her head literally snapped back as she noted how beautiful the bench was. When she saw the retail price of the bench was $2500, she said, “Expensive! But we can do expensive here.” The sale wasn’t complete, but the message was clear. We left with a spring in our step. Seth leaned over and said, “That’s the evidence we needed!”

By combining the stunning design of the bench with a project that teaches folks to use their hands to “make good”, she easily got it, and was invested in both the product and the idea ~ little as they both may be. So as the bench moves from the workbench at Gutierrez Studios, out to the garden center. It gives the woman who was sold on the concept a chance to sell the concept repeatedly ~ in her own way. Each of the folks who purchase one for their yard have now been invested. It gives them the opportunity to share this story with each visitor who comments on the bench, and so on… This is in part the vision of this project ~ that each person who is “sold” on the concept of Community becomes an emissary, invested in the idea that we are all responsible for eachother’s well-being. In isiZulu this idea is known as UBUNTU. UBUNTU is the little idea with the power to help change the world to something that is giving and beautiful. Imagine the possibilities!

The Bench that Gives

Nurture Form Community Bench. Photography by Chris Hartlove

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve experienced a rapid reduction in access to vehicles. Last year I lost my car and relied totally on my motorcycle and sharing a vehicle with my girlfriend when it was raining or too icy to ride. This winter’s fury kept me off of the motorcycle for months. When there was a break in the weather, I hopped on to take her out, and for the first time she wouldn’t start. I fiddled and fussed, but nothing. A couple weeks ago the car we shared had a rapid decline. So I pumped up the tires on my bicycle which hadn’t seen the road for a couple years and off I went.

Thank SPIRIT that much of my time is spent at Gutierrez Studios where most of the gents who work there commute by bike, and for those who don’t, sweat is still a way of life. But not every meeting is appropriate for a sweaty, lycra-clad entry. So for those days, and days to rainy to ride, there is Baltimore’s public transportation “system”.

For anyone who has contempt for those who can’t keep a job, I recommend a couple weeks relying on the MTA. Example: I had to get to a place with wifi this morning to get some work done. My iPhone (incidentally, a very useful tool for public trans travel, but also unaccessible to those who can’t swing the buck-eighty per month nut to ATT) told me to walk the mile to get to the bus stop to catch the 33 which was due to pick me up at 10:54. I arrived at the bus stop with 10 minutes to spare, but waited until 11:25 for the next bus to arrive. This waiting is a regular experience for public transit riders. On “good” routes, the schedule tells you there is a half hour to the next bus. If that one doesn’t show, add over an hour to your travel time. I had to get downtown, for my next stop. This is a 7 minute car ride from the coffee shop. My phone informed me that it is a 44 minute bus trip, including one transfer. Now, if even one leg of that trip breaks, it could be an hour and 45 minutes for the three mile commute. My iPhone tells me it would only be a 59 minute walk. Interesting dilemma.

If I was traveling to a job just 10 miles away during rush hour, I would have to plan on a two- to four-hour trip. Simple odds tell you that I would be late at least a couple times a month. How many employers would care to hear my excuse after the second time? Add single parenting and getting kids to school into that mix, and welfare seems about the only viable option.

This morning, after my hour-and-fifteen-minute-long commute to the local coffee shop, I ran into a woman I know. “Oh, that was you walking down the hill. I wasn’t sure if it was you, so I didn’t stop so I wouldn’t have to give a ride to someone I didn’t know.” I wasn’t mad at her. I know that she didn’t know her 3 minute drive would translate to an hour of lost time for me. But I am mad at a system that doesn’t hold people who don’t have resources as a priority. I am mad at a system that has made it unsafe for a woman to see if it is her friend walking. I am mad at a system that doesn’t make it safe for anyone to add people they don’t know to their empty cars to enable them to have any prospect of keeping a job and having a decent life.

Several years ago, artist Samuel Christian Holmes produced ornate sculpted thrones for MTA Lightrail stops on Howard street. He told me that he made them so that when his people were waiting for trains they would at least have a moment of feeling like kings and queens. I know this image moved a little something in my soul. As it turns out that little something had a lot to do with the Nurture Form Community Bench that was recently born.

Since I was very young, I have adored beautiful things. Not flashy things ~ things that exude beauty. I love the craftsmanship of old tools, formed of wood and steel by hand. I love the exquisite lines of instruments whose curved shapes are made to hold, and to make room for the bow to travel. I love the action of the keys of a Steinway Grand, resulting from over 12,000 moving parts. And I love the beauty of a well crafted piece of furniture. I know that the privilege of my upbringing ~ with a Mom who would on occasion pull out her beautifully ancient violin, and who collected things made by hand, and pianist Aunt Elaine, who allowed me to play her Steinways, and older brother Mark, who spent endless hours coaxing historic automobiles to life and beauty ~ I know my experience is rare, particularly for a Black man in America.

Yesterday in preparation for her first photo shoot, I methodically followed the grain of the pink ipe wood, initially with sand paper to pull smooth the surface, then, with penetrating oil to release the rich, brown beauty of her grain. I realized that the little idea of the Nurture Form Community Bench was not only about bringing something of beauty to life. I knew then that what was being born was the sum of all the gifts my life has given me ~ the gift of loving things that were made to continue giving. Although the design for the bench literally came to me one morning in the magical space between dreaming and waking, so many hands have touched and shaped this gift, that it no longer belongs to me alone. From the moment I first learned of Sam’s thrones, to when I first saw a stunning “Guti” bench, to when I handed the drawing to John who smiled his approval as he passed it to Mo the virtual sculptor, to when Mo’s 3D drawings of the bench appeared in my inbox making it no longer just an idea, to when he turned those into shop drawings for craftsman Drew to heat and bend her to life ~ all of these touches created this strong and delicate object. Yesterday, when photographer Chris Hartlove set his lights and lens to share her with the world, I began to feel the true power and movement of this gift.

My Son Grayson, himself an artist ~ a writer ~ and I were musing on the future of art. He was feeling that we had run the full course of art’s current form. We began to imagine where it was headed. I believe that the future is an evolution of the old way. Art will pull free from the rarefied walls of museums and will reconnect with life. I believe art will return to its original collaborative form where many hands bring life to the work, then, bring the work to life. The evolution will drift away from anonymizing or individualizing who gets recognition for the work. The fact that many hands touched the work will no longer decrease its value. This process will create its value. This will become the sign of truly great works.

I am learning that the Community Bench is named for the community of individuals that are behind her inviting lines.  This bench is also gift to the community. She is a fine instrument ~ a Steinway, boiled down to its essence. She was not created to bless hallowed concert halls. She was designed to “give” ~ to yield ~ as she gently holds those who have not been held in the narrow band of esteem traditionally reserved for those of privilege. As we begin to produce the Nurture Form Community Bench, she will continue to give everyday people the skill and artistry to bend and form the steel and wood from which she is constructed. As we place her on the streets of forgotten and neglected communities, she will give hope to those who learn what her lineage represents. She will signal that we as a people no longer will we tolerate the maintenance of an underclass. She will give a people who have for 400 years served an owner, the chance to own their own. She will give those waiting for buses, and change, a loving place to rest. And she will call to others to join the evolution of a society that holds all her people as deserving of the best we have to give. She will become known as “The Bench that Gives“.

Photograph By Chris Hartlove Photograph By Chris Hartlove

Photograph by Chris Hartlove Photograph by Chris Hartlove

Join the Circle of hands who give in support the Community Wealth Generation Initiative

The Master’s Touch

Photograph by Julia Pearson

It was a cold night, three years ago. The fire pit was blazing, spinning and shooting orange embers into the sky, challenging the stars for a moment before they flickered and faded. There were a hundred people huddled close. Some baking the warmth into their clothes, others pressing together in groups in animated exuberance. John had offered his amazing space to yet another friend and admirer in celebration of her birth. Farrah shone, wrapped in her grandmother’s fur like it was the best birthday ever. It was always The Best if it had anything to do with John Kennedy Gutierrez.

The drinks flowed like honeywater, painting soft our consciousness and vision ~ blurring the edges of who we thought we were. I wandered from the outside into the Gutierrez Studio showroom filled with stunning objects, armoires of shining steel and zebrawood, tables and chairs with legs of rust and patina, hanging amber light fixtures, each more simple and elegant than the last. One object captured my imagination. It was an exquisite desk lamp, honed of fine steel, delicate and sturdy ~ a cylindrical counter weight at one end, offsetting a long thin rod tipped with a tiny light. The entire piece was balanced with a polished steel ball sandwiched, well, more like suspended, between to thick steel discs. It looked like something pulled straight out of my dreams ~ the perfect object. It was blue heron-like in its hue and elegance. Like a child in a museum, I couldn’t help but reaching out to touch it. But rather than the metal-on-metal resistance I expected, the weighted rod moved as if it was floating in air. So perfectly balanced was this being from another universe, it stayed, without settling, exactly where I moved it. It was breathtaking.

I wandered around the room in awe ~ then, was overwhelmed by a feeling of deep sadness. I work in the neglected communities of Baltimore. Most people who don’t venture there imagine the pain of poverty. I see the majesty of my people making magic out of nothing. I see my young black teenage brothers in the streets pushing twisted bicycles, front wheels spinning off-kilter like tacos, slack chains, twisted handlebars. A condition that is impossible to ride. Yet, they mount these broken machines and bend the forces of space and time, hoist the front wheel towards the heavens with exquisite ease, and ride impossible wheelies for endless blocks, one hand swinging behind their backs as if to cuss back at the impossibility ~ to say, this ain’t nuthin. I knew in my soul that they deserve vehicles engineered like that lamp, and will never have access. These objects were made for those who can afford the artistry with which they were crafted.

I ran out the door to meet the man who conjured the space that created this magic. As I emerged out of the door, there was a man who towered above my 6 feet of stature, thick as a tree. He looked over at me with, olive skin, brushy brows shading sharp eyes peering through the delicately wrought glasses of an architect. His face broke into an off-kilter, snaggled smile as dimples danced up his right cheek. He stuck out his hand, which swallowed mine as if I were a child. His booming voice announced, John!

“Is that your shit in there?”, unable to pause for formalities. “Yeah, this is my place.” I don’t remember if this is true, but the residue of my memory tells me I didn’t let go of his hand. I pulled him into the showroom directly over to the “heron lamp”.

“Did you make this?”

“It was made here ~ designed by one of the craftsmen at the shop.” He walked me across the room and took me into the darkened space of the shop. He reached to flip a switch that flickered the lights to attention, revealing the caverness, cathedraled ancient space filled with machines, metal, wood, and projects in various stages of completion. It was the first time since childhood that I experienced the feeling I long to feel when I walk into a church. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe reminds us, “God is in the details”.

I was standing there. I couldn’t move. “Let me run an idea by you…” I blurted in manic impatience. I sketched the image of the kids hittin wheelies on trashed bikes. I said, “What if we taught folk who can do that, to do this?” His mouth arched into that crooked smile ~ he let go a laugh and said, “Call me Monday.” That was the genesis of what will now be know as the John Kennedy Gutierrez Apprenticeship, the first project of the Community Wealth Generation Initiative.

Last week, three years later, we filmed the bending and welding of the prototype bench that will be the first product of the apprenticeship that will teach men and women in East Baltimore to do just that. The next day, I sat in the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center next to John as he labored to breathe. The next night, I stood in my living room watching the amazing footage of John’s youngest employee, Drew, heating, bending and welding the steel bench as John’s voice powered through the speakers of my stereo. I happened to record a conversation with John 6 months before. I was about to write the curriculum for the initial orientation for the apprenticeship. I asked “what do the folk we are training need to know”? John took the next 22 minutes and 40 seconds to explain what it means to be a craftsman and an entrepreneur.

As I was watching, the wind picked up outside, pushing its way through the still sticky sliding doors of my living room that John once instructed me how to fix when he was there. Moments later I received a text from John’s sister Diana that said simply, “John has left this world.”

If one is truly blessed, one is given a gift of someone with the power to bend time and space ~ to bend your life from something ordinary, into something exquisite. This is the gift that John gave to me. 500 people gathered this Monday, filling the cathedral he calls “The Shop”, that John Kennedy Gutierrez bent into being from the ashes of the Clipper Mill fire. As we pushed close to eachother around the fire pit, still blazing, spinning and shooting orange embers into the sky, challenging the stars before they flickered and faded; I knew that I was not alone.

A man who works with his hands is a laborer;
a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman;
but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.

Louis Nizer