If I Can Change The World

Phil and his fellow acting students in a comedic play he helped write.

As I become more comfortable in my own skin and thereby easier-going about who I am and what I stand for, it has created a few groundswells in my life. One is that, after a couple decades of ignoring peoples’ insistence that I should open a school and write a guitar method book, I’m finally pursuing both. Another is that I’m realizing that my knowledge (or at least massive curiosity) about things shouldn’t be kept to my own brain. Analogous thinking means that I see a lot of subject matter from a place a few steps back, so to speak. This objectivity allows a view of how different subjects can be complementary or even empowering to one another. My love of humanity with all its quirks has a lot to do with why I’m not a nihilist. Therefore, I see the importance of preserving our planet in a livable condition for humans, far into the future. And I recognize that perceived and real costs now will be recouped in massive savings later, not the least of which will be found in lives, which are priceless. And I’m confident that we can accomplish this, because I see unlimited potential in everyone, which is also how I approach my work as a music coach and now, founder of a music school.

Opening my school comes in the wake of the most upheaval we’ve seen in this nation in a lifetime, including the most extreme economic downturn we’ve been through since the Great Depression. In my case, in literally a week, my income was cut down by 60%. In that moment I called upon my creative entrepreneurial skills and some knowledge of history. I promptly recalled that half of the Fortune 500 companies were founded during wars and major economic downturns, including the Great Depression. Then I considered how I’ve always gotten back on my feet after any major struggle, ready to adjust to whatever my new conditions required. You know, after the initial tantrums and brief moments of mild self pity. Ultimately, I’ve always found myself motivated by hardship, if sometimes only in the aftermath of my complaining.

Over these past 14 months, while paying especially close attention to how youth are responding to things and what science is telling us about our planet’s changes, I’ve allowed myself to be a little more vocal about my long held views on how we should treat our home. But I also walk the walk. I even wrote an article on how I profit from being green. It’s really more a demonstration of ways I ultimately save money or just don’t end up spending more, while paying attention to removing waste and looking for ways to contribute. I have a few examples.

The Upper Midwest once had some of the most fertile top soil in the world. That’s why we have such astounding amounts of exports in corn and soybeans. These are very congenial crops for rotating. It would be better to use regenerative farming, rather than monoculture farming. But that’s not this particular point. When I heard from a server, at a vegan place my wife liked, about a way to compost our food while living in an apartment, without smelling the place up, something quickly dawned on me. The City of Chicago and its outlying area could be helping to solve the problem of our loss of top soil. 9.3 million people live around here. If we all composted, a lot of the resultant material could go to the nearby farms. Imagine, then, if other cities in our region also contributed.

How do we compost? I found this service that drops off a sealable five gallon bucket every couple of weeks. My wife and I put everything compostable in it. They give you a list, in case you’re unclear. When they’re scheduled to drop off the next bucket, we put this one on the front stoop. Then they switch out the buckets. Once a year, if we like, we can also pick up a bag of the dirt that results from the composting process. We like. I have 50 plants in our house. Fresh air and green life around me always feels good.

Through this composting service, I was introduced to a local food co-op planning to open in a recently restored historic building in a lower income neighborhood called Uptown. This co-op will bring 70 jobs with it. While they continue the process of building out the space for their opening, they’re hosting things like the Uptown Farmers Market. I now go every week. I ask lots of questions of the vendor farmers. I found that the food is consistently sustainably farmed, and organic or free range. I also found that there wasn’t a vendor who didn’t know what I meant when I asked if they used regenerative farming. This kind of farming is really one huge key element to conserving (conserve=conservative, think about that for a minute) our resources and helping trap carbon while recycling the naturally existing nutrients in the soil and the plants that grow in it. It also means that we gain more of the originally existent nutrients in our food, from before we started over-processing and adding fillers. Look it up: Regenerative Farming. BTW, it also doesn’t pollute the local water table. My in-laws are more concerned with their local drinking water in rural Northern Wisconsin than my wife and I are in the city of Chicago. Our problem is the old pipes, not the groundwater. We still filter while the city works that out.

Seeing the long game in life with the additional understanding that we’re not each living somehow separated from 7.5 billion other people, we can begin to understand that making adjustments now, will save later. Save what? Well, health issues attributed to poorly raised and processed food not only shorten lives, but cost money in health care. Creating healthier food may cost a little more in the now, but when we connect it over the long term to saving lives, it really doesn’t. And if I can use organic foods as an example; when they first became a thing in the mainstream through places like Whole Foods back in the ’90s, only 1% of the U.S. population ate organic. So it cost much more. But, as food is a commodity, wider consumption brought down the prices and now organics are in your local market. The same will be true of things like free range meats and food raised through regenerative farming. You know, if we get on that band wagon and start jamming.

I visited an online meeting of my food co-op with members of the board and the manager. I was very impressed. One thing that really stuck out for me, especially as a Buddhist, was something the manager of the market said; This co-op and the food it brings to the neighborhood should elevate the dignity of human life. Boom. I sat up. Yes! Our connection to our planet and the food we consume can and should reflect our understanding of the dignity of all life. And I’ll add that, while this is a central element of my practice of Nichiren Buddhism, I see this as a truth in any religious or spiritual practice.

The dignity of life. The arts bring this to their every form. Even our frailties and faults are given beauty through music and the arts. And every student I’ve ever watched blossom into a skilled musician, I’ve also watched find a certain empowerment in their own progress. Wherever they started, they came to a place where their music celebrated something about who they are and their lives.

As I’ve implied before, my only real concrete methods involve an understanding, or belief, that everyone has unlimited potential and that giving up is never an option. These may be some of the only things I know with anything close to total certainty in my life. Everything else comes from a long list of skills I’ve worked hard for, and that I continue to hone through a beginner’s mind. I combine this mindset and these skills with a wealth of experience. This experience depends on the sharing of another’s experience for it to be truly worth anything. That sharing brings me, I’m gonna say it; full circle. None of us live in a vacuum. We are interdependent. Now more than ever.

Japanese philosopher and Buddhist scholar, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda called art “a melding of the individual and the universal.” Joseph Campbell spoke of how it’s what brings us closest to our gods. Music is often referred to as a universal language. If all of these things are true, then how can we doubt the dignity inherent in all of us? If I separate my art from the rest of my life, I’m a fraud. As a creative heart, I’m driven to see my beliefs reflected in my music and the method I use to teach it. And so, here I am. Even through all my failures and hardships as a human, that human was kept on track by teaching with a sense of faith in others. Even as I doubted myself. Legendary cellist Pablo Casals told a young Yo-Yo Ma that first, he should be human, then be a musician, then be a cellist. And yet the reverse truth; our instrument or craft leading us to our true humanity, can also be a path.

Passing through a pandemic and the seemingly endless losses and struggles in our world have somehow spurred me to finally open my school and write my guitar method book. My place in humanity requires I give my all to it with what skills and gifts I have found for myself. It’s in my blood, my art, and my heart. Avoiding anything in life that we’re designed to do, whether by our own efforts or the universal flow of things, can only be summed up to fear. Courage means that we move through this fear. That I’m about as nervous as when I first jumped on stages is proof to me that I’m on track. How about you? What’s scaring you these days? Have you thought about doing it? Why not? If I can change the world, so can you.

I’m going to end with this thing I say to lots of people younger than me as they fret about age. It just keeps getting better. I mean that now.

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Phil Circle

Phil Circle

Phil Circle is a Chicago-based singer-songwriter-guitarist, award-winning music coach and author, and the founder of Guilt By Association Records.