I worried a lot. Will the garden
grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will
the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I
just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
Finally I saw that worrying had
come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my
and went out into the
-Mary Oliver, in Swan: Poems and Prose
Miraculously – at least to my recollection – no one ever broke into laughter or even cracked a smile when he began to tear into us. The stakes were too high. The moment was too important. And besides, if you had been around for one of these before, you knew where his screed would crescendo:
“You know… I coulda been a plumber.”
Of course, Mr. McMahon (Paul McMahon) wasn’t a plumber. He was our choral teacher. And he was deeply disappointed in us. Not because we didn’t take him seriously. But because we didn’t take ourselves seriously. We were goofing around. Talking too much. Not paying attention. Not realizing the golden opportunity which lay before us: to join our voices together in song.
Guys at Avon High School didn’t join the chorus willingly. We were recruited which is a polite way of saying “we got bamboozled.” One second you agreed to do Mr. McMahon a quick favor and echo pitches he played on the piano. (You were horrible.) And then the next, you’re buying hook, line and sinker how you have such a great ear and you produce such a rich sound, right? So why wouldn’t you sign up for both regular and special chorus?
Like a good pediatrician, he’s shot you up with all of your vaccinations before you’ve even had a chance to whimper at the size of the needle. You’re left staring at the congratulatory stickers, aware of what just happened, but not comprehending how it all came to be.
And yet because of Mr. McMahon’s exhortations, I grew up knowing the difference between saying Hallelujah and singing it. I knew about the month of May-ing and merry lads, each with his bonny lass and their collective interest in fa-la-la-la-la-ing on the green-y grass. I contemplated the deepest of musical questions (How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?), made the most banal requests ((Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear)), and expressed my love (or some composer’s love) in a handful of languages and in multi-part harmony.
It’s true, there were some exceptional singers among the lot of us. Some pursued music as a profession and continue to earn their living that way. But the majority of us were croakers. But Paul didn’t mind that. What got him riled up was when we stopped caring.
Like Mary Oliver, I’m a worrier, too. It took a global pandemic and the shuttering of the studio for me to push through my fears of launching digital content, didn’t it? It’s not as if I never had the idea to create videos and webinars or to livestream classes. And even though it’s been a long, long time since I filmed yoga classes on the beach in Jamaica for Yoga Zone’s tv show, I still had vague memories of how it would get pulled together. It’s just that (those cacophonous voices in my head said) it had to be done a certain way. The right way. It couldn’t be done the wrong way.
Is it a thing to care too much? (Or is that just code for something else.)
One of the theater directors I worked with (Anne Bogart) had a rule that when things were falling apart onstage, she would clap her hands and say, “Stop!” and then walk towards the stage. She didn’t have to know what was wrong or how to fix it. She just had to make that gesture and then move towards the actors, trusting that she would be closer to figuring out a solution by the time she arrived there.
Paul McMahon’s fist pounding was a more dramatic, but no less loving, “Stop!” It corralled our attention. It demanded our full presence.
He wouldn’t have lasted a day as a plumber. Music was his life. He knew it, we knew it and he knew that we knew it. It was absurd to imagine that he could be anything other than who he was.
When it was time to joke around, no one laughed as hard as he did, with such ready tears or such milquetoast protests to stop so he could have a moment to catch his breath. And he had magic hands when it came to the keyboard, adding flourishes to the nascent composition efforts of Music Theory students and improvising progressions to rescue off-pitch soloists.
Mr. McMahon was only mad when we weren’t listening. To one another. To the music. To what was inside.
The Yoga Sutra-s talk about worry, or fear, as something that even the sages experience. The word that is used (abhinivesha) is a comprehensive one; it orients worry as offshoots of the fear of death and as related to the way we cling to temporal visions of who we think we are and how we present ourselves. The Sutra-s advice when it comes to worry is the same as Paul McMahon’s, Anne Bogart’s and Mary Oliver’s: just stop.
“Finally,” Mary Oliver writes, “I saw that worry had come to nothing. And gave it up.”
Is it that simple? Yes. And no.
Do you imagine that Mr. McMahon slammed his hand on the piano once? Or that Anne clapped her hands a singular time during the rehearsal process? Or that turning our attention to the breath or returning our attention to the present moment is something we’ll only need to do this one time?
No, of course not… That’d be absurd.
Almost as absurd as me becoming a plumber.
So we stop and sing. And stop. And sing. And stop. And sing. Again and again. Because at our core, we are not hopeless.