Walking with Maxine: Noticing and reflecting on a year of change

Christopher Gross

Reading Time:   6 Mins

Published:   June 2, 2021

…treating the world as predefined and given, as simply there, is quite separate and different from applying an initiating, constructing mind or consciousness to the world.

Maxine Green

Testing the blocks

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I.

One of the silver linings of the past year has been getting to spend more time with my three-year-old daughter. It’s not always easy, but I love that I’ve been able to see her so closely at this stage in her life, to notice who she is becoming, and to appreciate the spirit of the three-year-old mind. 

We love to read together and the Pete the Cat series is a favorite. She loves one story in particular, called Construction Destruction. It goes like this:

Pete the Cat goes outside for recess and discovers a dilapidated playground. He makes plans to build a new playground, and his friends help. They begin to build. Halfway through they decide to make an even cooler playground. The best playground ever. They get to work. The new playground is amazing and everyone is excited!

Until it collapses and falls.

Everyone is disappointed…..but not Pete! They build a different playground, and this one is full of surprises and new places to explore. Everyone is thrilled. The new playground is the best playground ever. “Sometimes you’ve got to dare to dream big!” says Pete.

My daughter loves this story. She also loves building, tearing down, and building up again. Each new structure is the best ever. But it’s never the last ever. Once it’s up it must come down, and the ensuing tumult is joyful, wild, gleeful. With limbs like Godzilla, bricks careen, playdough smooshes, paper shreds. No metal plaques or marble statues remain here. We’re on to the next plan, and we’ve got to “dare to dream big.” (as Pete would say)

II.

“We also have our social imagination: the capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, in our schools… That is, we acknowledge the harshness of situations only when we have in mind another state of affairs in which things would be better… And it may be only then that we are moved to choose to repair or to renew.” —Maxine Greene 

I frequently walk through Inwood Park, a thumbnail of land at the northern tip of Manhattan. You hear the traffic but see no people, see no buildings. It feels untouched by the city. Spend enough time here and you’ll find ruins. Abandoned lamp posts from WPA projects line the crumbling pathways. You’ll also find foundations of buildings, shards of pottery, old plumbing, wrought iron fences and stone walls that once belonged to houses and estates—the remnants of a community. There had been small family houses and country estates, a pottery studio, and a large complex that served as an ‘asylum for troubled women’ (a dubious term from the 19th century). And of course, before these buildings stood, the surrounding forest had been home to the Lenape people, land stolen by European colonists.

I often wonder: did the people who lived here ever imagine this space would return to the forest? These walks are a reminder to me that we’re always in flux, an ebb and flow of building up and tearing down. Our cultures and communities are not permanent. I find this fact both terrifying and inspiring—we can only thrive through growth and change. Like Pete the Cat we have to embrace that some things will collapse, but that we can rebuild and make something even better. What we care for may flourish; what we abandon may disappear. Evolution and change, even great change, is not only possible, but inevitable.

Reading Maxine Greene, I am reminded of the ways in which noticing is itself a catalyst for change. From an artistic perspective, we notice what is there—in a painting, in a piece of music, in a poem—and we reflect within ourselves to uncover a deeper truth. The same can be true for how we notice the world. When we engage with the world from an artistic stance we find meaning through careful observation and deep reflection. The past year has compelled me to notice more clearly what is there in the world. To notice more of my own blindspots, to understand my own privileges and prejudices, and to understand more of the hierarchies and systems I participate in and benefit from. As I notice, I evolve. I construct and rebuild, repair and renew.

III. 

“We well know that defining this society in terms of the American Dream or in the light of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness means nothing if the people in this society do not feel called upon to act upon such ideals and so realize them…..   Of course, questions may be raised about the principles we choose to identify as those defining a democratic space. Are they objective? Are they universal? All we can do is articulate as clearly as possible what we believe and what we share….”—Maxine Greene

When I think of the past that surrounds us, I reflect on what our world will look like to the people walking our streets in 50, or 100 years—when my daughter will be old. What in our society will seem primitive? What will seem wise? Which structures will evolve, and which will fade away?

I would have assumed that Greene, a philosopher, would be more reassuring, more confident, in telling me that “yes, there is objective truth, there are universal values and here they are.” Instead her philosophy is more activist, in the sense of compelling one to action. If we must continually create ourselves and the world, then we must “articulate as clearly as possible what we believe.” As we ourselves become the ancestors of the succeeding generations, we engage in this articulation each day, and sometimes in the smallest ways, the briefest interactions: How do I engage with my family? My neighbor? My students? My community?

IV.

“Like community itself, democracy has to always be in the making”—Maxine Greene

March 13. 

It’s a date I always remember. For one, it’s my wife’s birthday. And sometimes it falls on a Friday. But now it marks something else: the day the music, and our world, stopped.

In a way, I was relieved. The 2020 season had been thrilling, full of concerts, teaching, projects out of town, my daughter’s first year of preschool. But I was exhausted ten weeks into the year, and an unexpected pause seemed like it could be a good thing. I’ll get some rest and in a month we’ll be back. Naivety and ignorance were in full effect.

Over a year later, and my pandemic exhaustion intermingles with exuberation. Exuberation for all that has returned and is newly-appreciated: Hugs with friends! Going to a cafe! The wind on one’s face! But exhaustion too because we have all lived through a period of loss and destruction, a stripping away of the normal. Now there’s the pleasure of return, but with the knowledge that much is left undone. 

In spite of these question marks and uncertainty, I am hopeful—in no small part because of the incredible and inspiring work I’ve seen teaching artist friends and colleagues create throughout this past year. There is always the opportunity to create something better, to reconstruct. The pandemic, the fight for racial justice, the election—the past year has been unique in the way it has touched everyone in our world in a visceral and personal way. It makes one notice.  

As teaching artists, we have a unique role in that noticing, helping our students to create themselves and our society. As we work, as we help people reflect and make meaning, we continue to question: 

How do we notice what is present in our society, and how do I reflect on my own place in that society? 

How do we form communities with each other, in our neighborhoods and in our country? 

How do we want to rebuild and renew?

Cellist Christopher Gross' performances have been praised by The New York Times ("beautifully meshed readings....lustrous tone") and The Strad Magazine (“...the tone of Gross’ cello enveloped the crowd [as he] showed energy and intonational accuracy, even when racing around the fingerboard”).

He is a founding member of the Talea Ensemble, a member of the Da Capo Chamber Players, and has appeared at venues and festivals throughout the US and Europe including Weill Recital Hall, Alice Tully Hall, Disney Hall, Darmstadt Festival, Mostly Mozart Festival, Wien Modern, the Composers Conference and many others. He has appeared on recordings on various labels, including Bridge, New Focus, Tzadik, and New World. As an orchestral musician, he has played with the New York Philharmonic and the Riverside Symphony. An active educator, he is a Teaching Artist with the New York Philharmonic, working with students across the five boroughs of New York City, and in workshops with audiences and educators. He has written about his experiences as a teacher for the Suzuki Association of America, Playbill, and the Juilliard Journal, and has given classes and lectures at Harvard University, Peabody Conservatory, Sydney Conservatory, Cleveland Cello Society, Brooklyn College, Walnut Hill School for the Arts, and the Face to Face Conference. He is the creator of Cello Solos Today (www.cellosolostoday.org), which commissions new works for young cellists and creates online educational resources about contemporary music. He received his doctoral degree from Juilliard in New York and teaches at Lehigh University, where he was the university’s Horger Artist-in-Residence in 2016-17.