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Michael Engberg / Blog

Care, Concern, and the Nature of Worry

Care, Concern, and the Nature of Worry Pony and I traveled into Santa Fe to meet a friend of ours last night. The plan was to meet our friend, Teri, at the Trader Joe’s in Santa Fe, at 5pm. We took a few minutes to fill our severely empty gas tank, but arrived at the Trader Joe’s parking lot at just a few minutes past 5. And we waited. While we waited, we were accosted by a couple of panhandlers. The second one, gave his tale homeless woe, and I offered to buy him a sandwich at the Subway, just across the parking lot from Trader Joe’s. He told me his name was Bodie. We walked into the Subway, and I let him order a footlong, along with a bottle of Coke. The whole bill came to about $10. I would have done better just to slip him a little change. Still… We waited. Bodie swung by on his bicycle to tell us that he was still trying to muster up some change to charge his cellphone (a homeless guy with a cellphone…?... well, okay). Still, at this point, having felt that I had donated enough to Bodie’s survival, we shrugged our shoulders as he went down to the other end of the parking lot on his bicycle. We waited. It was now nearly 6pm; almost an hour past the agreed upon meeting time. Pony tried calling Teri’s phone, but there was no response, and an announcement that the voicemail box was full. She sent a handful texts; another one every ten minutes or so. Still no response. Last week, there was a quote from the Dalia Lama posted on Facebook about worry. “If there is a solution, then you work towards that solution. If there is no solution, then worry will not change anything.” I am be paraphrasing a little, but that was the gist of it. I shared that quote, lending my own agreement to the spirit of it. But now as I was confronted with a form of worry that may not have been adequately covered by the Dalai Lama’s words. It is the worry of not knowing. In not knowing, you, you are not sure whether there is a solution or not. You do not know if there is something you can do, because you do not know what may have happened. By 6:30, we left a final text, giving the address of the restaurant we planned to go to for dinner, still having heard nothing. Worry. As we started up the car and prepared to head for the restaurant, Bodie rode by on his bicycle. “I’m not crying, but I hid the sandwich and the soda behind a trash can, and somebody stole it,” he told us. Sigh.

The Noisy Mind and the Quiet Room

On Saturday, Pony and I went to explore downtown Santa Fe. As we arrived and found parking for our car, the bells of the St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral began to ring. There were a handful of bells that, once they got going, created quite a din that filled the downtown plaza with their sound. At some point, I was reminded of those bells as I sat in the meditation hall of the Upaya Zen Center, in Santa Fe. Upaya is located in a quiet, unassuming little neighborhood in the eastern part of Santa Fe. I read about it in one of my zen Buddhist books, and decided to pay it a visit (up to now, I had never visited any Buddhist temple of any sort, zen or otherwise, despite the fact that I have been meditating for almost 40 years and have identified myself as a Buddhist for over a decade). It is a lovely community. Pony and I did not get any formal tour as such, but we wandered about a bit until we found the building that seems to serve as kitchen, dining hall, and office. There I met a gentleman named Michael who had all the appearances of being a monk (shaved head, black blouse and trousers, sandals). He led us to the meditation hall. Pony begged off going in for the meditation session, as she had a headache coming on. Michael suggested she might walk the gardens (including a labyrinth), while I removed my shoes and entered the meditation hall, and took a seat at a spot indicated for me. The hall is reasonably spacious; about the size of a small chapel, perhaps, with seating arranged around the perimeter. There are cushions on the floor, as well as a few stools and chairs for those who wished to sit in the manner Westerners are more accustomed to. It was an hour of meditation, starting with 25 minutes of seated meditation, then about ten minutes of walking meditation, followed by another 25 minutes of sitting (there is sort of a joke among zen Buddhists, found on t-shirts and bumper stickers, that says, “Don’t just do something…Sit there!”). I sat down to meditate, and the monkey mind kicked into full gear. Thoughts careened and raced and bumped and clashed within the walls of my mind. As I said, I was reminded of the clangor of the cathedral bells, and I really was afraid that my thoughts would be loud enough to disturb the others seated around me. It didn’t help that I had forgot to leave my cellphone in the car. It chimed twice (to inform me friends of mine had taken their turns in Words With Friends matches) before I found the volume control and turned it down to zero. Still, there was some stillness. And there was a moment where I felt like the front of my head was one big hole of endless “no-thing-ness”. There is a zen koan that asks, “What is your face before you are born?” And I found my self wondering, “Is this THAT?” I came out of the meditation session feeling incredibly calm and energized, and with a quiet, deep abiding sense of joy, or perhaps bliss. All of this, despite the frantic mischief of the monkey mind. I have had other moments of meditation where I have experienced profound stillness of the mind. I am sure I can and will do so again. In the meantime, I look forward to visiting Upaya at least one more time before we head on to Phoenix.

The Key

We have a banner hanging in the bedroom of our RV. It Is supposed to be a quote from Buddha. It says: “The key to happiness is not success. The key to success is happiness. Do what you love, and you will be successful.” [this would fit into the Eightfold Path under Right Action and Right Livelihood, I would say] Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were three straight days of doing what I love, here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. On Wednesday night, I met a gentleman who is a songwriter for cabaret shows (he has actually received checks from ASCAP, which, I admit, is something I am still hoping for at some point). On Thursday, I was playing the Casa Real Healthcare Center, where I met the staff psychologist. She introduced herself, and told me of growing up in Brooklyn, struggling with Spina Bifida. She told me of a couple of volunteers who would regularly visit the hospital (where she underwent several surgeries for her condition), and they would read to her and the other children. She told me that one of those volunteers was Malcolm X. She then told me how precious and healing it was for me to come and play for the residents of the healthcare center, and thanked me for my good work (she also agreed to send me an email with some suggested Spanish songs that I might learn and add to my growing repertoire). On Friday, I was at a small, private nursing home, where I had an audience of maybe ten. I played without a sound system (very much in the spirit of a House Concert, as it were). At the end of the show, the owner asked me to remind her what my fee was. To be honest, given the small audience and all, I was sort of bracing for the need to negotiate a lesser fee than I usually charge, especially when the owner’s eyes went wide in apparent surprise. But to my surprise, she said, “Can I pay you more?” She paid me almost double my usual fee, and told me to be sure to call the next time I look to be in town. Yesterday, I was reading one of my handful of books on Buddhism, when I came across an article that described a zen center here in Santa Fe. I looked them up on the internet, and found a schedule of meditation sessions open to the public. I intend to visit this center and see what I may learn. The last few days have been joyful. They have been filled with good work (Right Effort), and I have been filled with a feeling of being at peace with my world. We still have our challenges, here and there. The water heater is acting up in the RV, and we have not yet figured out what’s wrong (we suspect a bad fuse, which will mean a trip to Camping World on Monday to find a replacement). There is work to be done, and problems to be addressed, and yet, for the most part, I feel a very welcome sense of calm about it all. Lately, Pony has taken up the practice of expressing gratitude in posts on Facebook. I guess this is my version of the same, here.

Beautiful Sunday

It started with the South Pearl Street Farmers Market in Denver. I have played this place for several years, now, and I always look forward to doing so. The weather was lovely: sunny, neither overly hot nor terribly cold. A couple of old friends that I had not seen in months (or even a few years, in one case) showed up to say hi. There was the usual crowd of children watching, dancing, singing along to songs like “Puff The Magic Dragon” and “Yellow Submarine” “Remember, putting money in the musician’s guitar case will give you good luck for the rest of the day,” I announced as child after child (and several adults) dropped dollar bills into the two guitar cases (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). There’s the hundred and more smells wafting from the food carts and the produce stands. There’s the parade of doggies of all shapes and sizes, taking time to wag a tail and perhaps sniff the butt of a fellow traveler. There’s the guy with the Desert Storm Vet patch on his vest studying my CD’s, then giving me a thumbs up as I launch into a Hank Williams tune. Farmers Markets are typically about four hours, but I came away feeling incredibly invigorated. Which was a good thing, because then I had a House Concert at the residence of my long-time, wonderful friends, Ed and Colleen. I played an opening set of mostly instrumental stuff as guests arrived and a bountiful table of appetizers was enjoyed by one and all. After about an hour, I took a break to enjoy a bit of dinner, then on to the second set; about an hour and twenty minutes of a featured show with a welcoming audience. One of the particular perks to playing a House Concert is the chance to interact with your audience in a very direct and somewhat intimate way. People ask you questions about this or that song, or about how the tour is going. You get to tell some stories in between the songs. Another break for snacks and drinks, and I did a third set of mostly sing-along stuff, while some of the guests grabbed various percussion instruments that my hosts supplied It turned into a spontaneous jam of sorts. Between the second and third sets, a hat was passed and several CD’s were sold. I left Ed and Colleen’s place at about 11pm. I had played some seven hours altogether. Driving home, I finally felt tired, but it was a good fatigue, mixed with the glow of a day well spent and enjoyed to the core. These are the days that punctuate my life with moments of real bliss, and remind me just how fortunate I am. I am blessed. Yes, I believe I am very blessed.

Victor victorius

I just caught Camp Coulter out of the corner of my eye as we were passing through Victor, Idaho. The town of Victor itself is about 2000 people, and twenty-five miles west of Jackson, Wyoming, where I had a couple of gigs over the weekend. Our challenge was trying to find a place that still had open spots for an RV, and that wouldn’t cost us an arm and a leg in the process (the cheapest RV parks in and around Jackson itself were about $50 per night, and the average was closer to $80 or more). I parked the RV along a strip of public parking in Victor’s downtown business district and walked about a quarter mile back to Camp Coulter. There were a couple of vacant spaces, with electric/water/sewage hookups. I was looking for an office, or someone to talk with, and managed to chat with a woman who was renting by the month for her fifth wheel. Then a gentleman emerged from an Allegro RV. I told him what I was looking for. He showed me one of the vacant spaces, then walked over to a sign that showed a phone number to use. In all of this exchange, he said not a word, nor even uttered a sound. We tried calling the phone number, and got a voicemail option. We left a few messages, and at some point I drove the RV into the camp and into the space that “Mr. Allegro” had pointed out to me. We sat there for awhile, with our generator running, hoping to hear back on the phone from someone. After an hour or so, we decided to go ahead and put down the levelers, extend the sliders, and at least plug into the electricity for the night. The next morning, I met Rick, who was the manager for the camp. He told me that they normally charge on a monthly basis, but I was able to negotiate staying the weekend for $100 and a couple of the new CD’s. That left me a 25 mile commute in our shuttle car to gigs in Jackson on Friday and Sunday. Friday night was the Rock River Lodge; and assisted living/retirement community. It was another in a long string of hour-long shows where I have come to feel this is just another form of House Concert. And it’s become a very comfortable experience, playing a lot of songs that folks can sing along to, throwing in one or two of my own tunes, and a story, here and there. The other gig in Jackson was at the Q Roadhouse, on Moose-Wilson Road, on the Sunday. I was a little apprehensive on first arriving and setting up, as the house sound system was playing Madonna, Prince, KC and the Sunshine Band, and various other 70’s and 80’s funk and disco. I don’t have a problem with that music as such, but I was hoping the staff and diners were in no way expecting anything like that from me. It was a four-hour gig, and it went just fine. I was told at the end of the evening that I should definitely give a shout next time I expect to pass through, as they would definitely like to use me again. Over the last five months or so, we have been building something of a circuit, as nearly every place that I have played has asked me to call about coming back to play. We hope to add more places, as we look to do this big loop through the West again over the next year or so.

Taking the Highgate

“I’m almost 83 years old,” Helen told me (for the third time), “and all through my life, music was such an important part. But I had to give it up.” “Why did you have to give it up?” I asked. “I have some brain damage. Memory problems,” she told me. I thought about that over the next hour, as I played for the Highgate Living Center, in Bozeman. For as I played, there was song after song that I saw Helen singing along to, eyes afire, a grin across her face. She looked beautiful and profoundly happy. I had four shows lined up in Bozeman, and each one was a delight. There are house concerts and there are house concerts. I look upon my playing at nursing homes and retirement communities as just another form of house concert. As I have described before, I tend to lean a little more towards popular songs that my audience is likely to recognize and remember: swing hits from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s; Hank Williams tunes and other Country and Western gems; folk music; classical guitar; a celtic tune, here and there. And I often manage to sneak in one or two of my own songs, as well. In between, I tell stories. I tell them about how I have come to live my new life as a gypsy musician. I talk about my guitars. I tell the story of how my steel-string guitar was stolen, then recovered, and how I came to name it George. And an hour goes by like a very pleasant visit among friends. I have learned that I need to allow another 20 minutes or more after the performance. Sometimes there are demands for an encore (and I am happy to oblige). Often, folks want to come up, shake my hand, tell me how much they enjoyed the show, and ask when can I come back. At the end of the show at Highgate, Helen approached me, a tear in her eye and a smile on her face. “I knew the words to so many of those songs!” she told me. I nodded and smiled back at her. “I could hear you helping me out with those songs,” I said. One of the precepts in Buddhism is something called “Right Livelihood” You are asked to find good work; work that does as little harm to the earth as possible, and, ideally, leaves things a little better than how you found them. At each of these performances, I can see the smiling faces and the glow in the eyes. I can see people come alive as they remember an old song. I can hear the laughter from a good joke or a humorous song. Yes, I believe I have found Right Livelihood.

Maleficent and the Merry Widow

The day before Pony’s birthday (in other words, July 8th), we pulled into the Merry Widow campground and Healthmine, in Basin, Montana. Basin is pretty much equidistant between Butte and Helena, just off I-15, and small enough where you could miss it if you blinked at the wrong time. A big selling feature of the Merry Widow campground is the Healthmine. As I understand it, the mine was originally a source of gold and silver, but those days were played out before the early twentieth century. Since then, the mine is touted for having curative powers, and as such has become a destination for folks who suffer all manner of maladies. People come to find relief from arthritis, migraines, and many other complaints. There is a substantial contingent of evangelical Christians who come to this heathmine, which suggests an element of faith healing. In this respect, I was somewhat reminded of Lourdes, France, which Pony and I visited a few years back (although, I must say that the Merry Widow Healthmine has not accumulated any of the souvenir shops or other commercial trappings we saw in such abundance at Lourdes). The campsite has a large, barn-like building that holds the restrooms, shower rooms, and a large Rec Hall. And as it turned out, there is a potluck dinner held in that Rec Hall every Wednesday evening. I told the couple who run the camp about my profession, and offered to play a bit for the potluck dinner. They gladly accepted my offer. But Wednesday was also Pony’s birthday, so we drove to Helena, where we enjoyed a fine brunch at a place called Steve’s Diner, followed by a visit to Helena’s one and only cinema complex (or so we’re told), where we watched the movie, Maleficent (starring Angelina Jolie). There were only a handful of folk enjoying the movie with us, and it was a welcome treat. It’s been months since we’d gone to a movie theater, making the visit that much more enjoyable. With a quick stop for some groceries, we made our way back to camp. We got back with about half an hour before the scheduled potluck dinner, giving me just enough time to set up my sound system, tune the guitars, and be ready to play. Pony was suffering from a bit of a migraine, so she elected to have a quiet evening in the RV while I played for a good 90 minutes or more through the dinner. Mostly, I played some classical guitar and other finger-pickin’ repertoire. Towards the end, there was a Korean woman who asked if I could accompany her in a rendition of “How Great Thou Art”. It turned out that the key of G fitted her just fine, and I managed to put something fairly nice behind her singing. After that, I was asked if I could do something “danceable”, so I played and sang “All of Me”. Then, for some real novelty, I did my rendition of “The Witch Doctor” (the old Alvin and the Chipmunks song), and wound up the set with “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. That one got everyone singing along. It turned out that the Healthmine is owned by a kind, Korean gentleman who lives in Seattle and brings a contingent of folk from the West Coast on a regular basis to partake of the mine’s curative powers. He was here for the Wednesday potluck, and he ended up buying half a dozen of my CD’s (almost all of which he gave away to his fellow travelers). Today, when Pony went to pay for our stay here at the camp, the managers had discounted $50 from our bill, in appreciation of the music.

Big Bang in Theory and Practice

I had a handful of gigs lined up in Missoula over July 4th weekend (including three on July 4th itself). Playing for nursing homes and retirement communities has become a growing part of my itinerary, and I have to say that I have come to enjoy this part of my performing a great deal. I can go back to the very first time I ever played in Colorado, when an agent (based in Pennsylvania, strangely enough) booked a block of some twenty-five nursing homes and retirement centers to be played in ten days. I was playing two, and sometimes three shows in a day. And there was this powerful feeling when you played a song that someone remembered from way back when, and you made that connection. During the last few years of my mother’s life, spent in a nursing home in my home town, I would make a point of coming out as often as I could to play for her and the other residents during their dinner hour. The staff always let me know how grateful they were for the entertainment, as it made the dinner hour more pleasant for all concerned. People were willing to sit and enjoy their meal, and everything was just a bit more convivial. Over the last year or so, I have had all manner of reactions to my performances in nursing homes. I have seen eyes light up with an old inner fire. I have seen some adult children visiting break into tears, as some song brings back a shared moment. I have seen folks get up and dance, almost like something out of a tent revival meeting. I admit that this does me a great deal of good, as well. Missoula was chock full of such experiences. Meanwhile, we camped at the Lolo Hot Springs, about 35 miles northwest of Missoula. As is the case with much of Montana, the campsite had its share of lovely scenery. But it was the July 4th weekend, and there were plenty of campers tooling about in their ATV’s, leaving cans and other bits of trash strewn hither and yon, and fireworks of all description that started days before the holiday and continued for at least a couple of days thereafter. On July 4th itself, the fireworks started in the middle of the afternoon and continued until well after 2am. One’s perspective on fireworks changes a bit when you have a dog that has grown terrified of the noise. Ours was not the only dog in the camp that suffered so. Stereotypes and caricatures have their origin in some seed of truth. When people speak disparagingly of rednecks who use the woods with reckless disregard for anyone else, there are plenty who feed that image. I saw a fair number over the July 4th weekend. I realize the image does not fit in all cases. But, sadly, it fits often enough.

Another Adventure in Time Travel

The last third of June saw us in Bigfork, Montana, thanks to the hospitality of an old friend, Peggy Atchley, who let us camp in the field behind her house for about ten days or so. It was my first time back to Bigfork in 25 years, and it was truly an experience of time travel. Rufus and I went on some long wanders around the town, as I noted the changes. As one might expect, there were a good many after so many years. Some things had not changed all that much. Electric Avenue is the main street of Bigfork, and the newer, larger theater for the Bigfork Summer Playhouse had been built the year before I left. Rufus and I walked the trail that borders the Swan River, along with various other parts around and just outside of town. There are more houses to the north and west of town, but it has preserved its small town atmosphere, for all that. Pony now has some understanding for what inspired me to live here for a few years, back in the 80’s. It is still an incredibly beautiful corner of the Earth. Pony understands the attraction of living in such a place, but also observed how removed it is from….well, from just about everywhere else, as it were. The old grocery store is now called Harvest Foods , although the locals still refer to it as the IGA. A couple of doors down from the grocer is a relatively new place called the Grateful Bread Bakery. I had a chance to chat with the owners, Michael and Gabrielle. That chat, plus the fact that I had one of my guitars in the back seat of our car, resulted in my being hired to play 3 hours in the afternoon for three days in a row. I made some good money, sold some CD’s, and had a great time. There are some concert series and some other venues that make it possible to return to Bigfork sometime next summer. At the very least, I don’t look to wait nearly so long to come back for another visit.

With A Nod To Joseph Campbell

I was watching “How To Train Your Dragon” with my wife, Pony, and my mother-in-law, Margaret. I was sitting in the bean bag chair in the RV, with a puddle of fur named Murphy sprawled across my lap, and a glass of fine, red wine near at hand. Earlier this afternoon, I did a show at the Horizon House Nursing Home, in Seattle. I had a great time sharing songs and stories with the 30 or so members of my audience. I sang songs that made them laugh. I sang songs that had them clapping their hands and tapping their toes. I told them the story about seeing Andres Segovia at Carnegie Hall, back in 1981. He was 86 years old, and he played the guitar beautifully. He lived to be 93 years old, and (I have been told) played guitar nearly to the day he died. More than once (several times, in fact) I have said that I should hope to live life that well. About 7 or 8 years ago, I looked upon my life and found it good. I lived in an apartment in Arvada at the time. I was teaching guitar, teaching music classes at a community college, and playing gigs around town and in the mountains. I had a good-sized group of friends who made life very pleasant. Between work that I thoroughly enjoyed, and good friends and family, I was more than content. And I remember thinking at the time: if this is as good as life gets, I am fine with that. It’s a good life. In fact (with a nod to Frank Capra) it was a wonderful life. Then I met Pony, and life expanded. I was more than content. I was, and am very happy. I have a wonderful, loving wife. I have three cats and a dog that, in their own manner, make me feel wanted every day. And for the last year, I have had the genuine pleasure of sharing songs and stories with wonderful people all over the country. I confess that I have not actually read any of Joseph Campbell’s books. But I have watched a couple of the interviews he did with Bill Moyers. I believe I have some understanding of his idea of “following your bliss”. I think I am doing something like that. I want to make it clear that I do not mean this in any way as some form of boasting, or bragging. And I know that I have made mention of this before, but I want to once again mention the musician, Steve Goodman. It is my understanding that, because of his leukemia, Steve Goodman treated every concert as if it could be his last. I don’t want to have to wait for cancer, or some other terminal illness, to understand that way of embracing life. So it is not boasting or bragging, but simply a statement of profound gratitude. I have had the great gift and pleasure of enjoying my life. Many times, I have been able to stop and think: this is good. I do not take this for granted. Quite the opposite: I am keenly aware that I have a very fortunate life. I enjoy good health, and I am able to share the gift of music, and I have the company and love of my wife, my friends, and my furry roommates. To Life. L’Chaim.