Last Friday evening, an artist friend and I attended performances at the De Young Museum, featuring an African man playing the kora, a traditional instrument, backed by four men playing different bass and percussive instruments. Their inspiring talent underlined a contagious passion for performance, and I turned to my friend and asked her if she ever felt like she needed to have a concrete talent. We chuckled our mutual understanding, and I added that I wanted to learn how to drum like one of the guys on the stage, with wild abandon, but also with a notably honed, long-earned talent. Later when I went to purchase a CD from the band, one of the drummers accepted my cash with a hand severely deformed from thalidomide. When my friend and I walked away, she pondered if we had suffered some cruel setback or disability, if life was more challenging, that maybe we would discover perseverance not found when life is soft and comfortable.

The next day at a brunch with old friends, I mentioned that I desperately needed to learn a practical skill — something that would equate to something that could be tangibly recompensed, or at least come in handy. The two attorneys and one marketing exec spit out their food in laughter when I explained that is why I wanted to learn African drumming.  But oddly, when their laughter faded, they went on to complain that they had no practical skills. So then I thought more deeply about what this longing was about, but other things took over my attention and I didn’t get anywhere on the matter.

Tonight driving home from my studio, I have a bag of wine bottles. In the dark, I see a woman leaning over a trashcan, fervently sorting recyclables into her cart, so I pull over. She is wearing latex gloves, ill-fitting, outdated clothing, and a hat, and is otherwise alone and defenseless in this rough neighborhood of San Francisco.

She will get 10 cents for a pound of the glass she collects. She maybe has 20 to 30 pounds in her fragile cart, and it is already cold and dark. How far will three dollars get her? Three dollars I mindlessly dropped on a crappy latte an hour before.

When she hears the clinking of the glass in my bag, she turns towards me, and I ask her if she wants my glass. Thank you, she says in her Chinese accent, through missing teeth. She could have been my grandmother. Thank you, she repeats. I see clearly in her was once a vulnerable, sweet, open child, much like my own son. Thank you, thank you, thank you, she says.

Today’s Advice: “And Polo said: ‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many; accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.  The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension; seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’ Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.

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