May 5th, 2013 :: Ordinary Days
The winds are back.
Today they blew so violently my birdfeeders were knocked to the ground. The tulips were stripped of their petals and now the stalks stand naked. The huge bell hanging in the courtyard rang wildly all afternoon. Inside, the house is covered in a layer of dust. The bottoms of my feet are black from walking barefoot on the wooden floors. My beautiful new black and white tile floors (with white grout—what was I thinking?) are gritty and dirty; no amount of sweeping helps.
The winds mean spring is officially here, a marker more reliable in New Mexico than a calendar. This year, spring has been flirting with us for weeks---the daffodils and hyacinths bloomed a month ago; last week my first yellow rose appeared. I have a field of purple irises in the back garden. When I look out my bathroom window, all I can see is green: the Elm trees are in full leaf. But just two weeks ago we also saw snow: 6-12 inches in the upper elevations. Even in this, the most urban of neighborhoods some 5000 feet below, we got flurries.
This bi-polar weather reflects the pace of the semester thus far. We have seen weeks and weeks of non-stop work, reeling from one performance to another. Then suddenly, dramatically, comes an empty afternoon and we spin dizzily in the open space, only to be thrust back in long, long days with every minute obsessively scheduled. It’s enough to make us question our sanity, or at the very least wonder how long we can keep this up.
My favorite musical marking of all time might very well be tornando al tempo: Return to the tempo. The Midwesterner in me likes to read this as tornado al tempo, which sounds very dramatic as if we should all scurry to the basement in search of shelter. In the tornado seasons of my childhood, getting to spend the night in the basement was a great thrill, particularly if it involved sleeping bags and candles. There was something strangely comforting about the whole family camping out together in the dark sans electricity. Return to the tempo. Somehow these Midwestern storms seemed to force us to return to the tempo of an earlier, more simple time, something that even as a child I must have longed for.
Nothing has really changed. I still want the occasional good ghost story and the lulling sound of the rain on the roof. Candlelight is my favorite way to light the darkness. And there is nothing like a raging storm with lots of thunder that makes my teeth rattle.
But I live in the desert. Instead of rain, I wait out the winds. I shut windows and lock doors, keeping out the gusts of air and dirt, protecting my corner of the universe from nature’s elements. Slowly, hesitantly, we are returning to the familiar and comforting tempo of our lives, the terror and sadness of recent weeks beginning to abate slightly. Outside, the bell tolls and tolls as it is tossed about in the wild air, singing the arrival of spring.
December 23rd, 2012 :: Ordinary Days
the hinge of the year:
holding up candles in church
lighting up our breaths.
The hinge of the year: Students finish lessons for the semester, trailing wrapping paper and Christmas carols as they run out the door chasing the holidays. Students, back from college, call and visit. The studio calendar for next spring is set, newsletters written. Services are sung and spoken, sending out the old, bringing in the new. We attend parties and host dinners, candles dripping as the hours pass. We read Christmas cards from friends and buy stamps to mail our own. It is the hinge of the year.
My favorite Christmas card this year was made by a student, Nicole, who is six. It is an intricately pencil-drawn card, designed with scenes of the two of us: Nicole and I smelling flowers, playing the piano, looking out the window. “I like when you teach me piano,” she writes inside. “I like your home. Your home is so so beautiful!!!”
But wait. There’s more.
On the back, Nicole writes,
“Do you ever decorate your house? Do you ever decorate a Christmas tree?”
Clearly, while my home is “so so beautiful,” I am not living up to my potential. There is more I could be doing. Sounds familiar.
Some weeks ago, spinning from the sheer too-muchness of our lives, I decided to take a step backwards. In the face of the overwhelming abundance that pushes in from all sides this time of year, I decided to push back. I didn’t want to spend a weekend hanging bows on cabinets and doors, only to have to spend another weekend removing them in January. I didn’t want to find space for Christmas knick-knacks on my already crowded mantle, forcing the fish and the orchids and the candles and the hourglasses already living there to find another home. I didn’t want to go near a mall or negotiate a parking lot that wasn’t absolutely necessary.
On the other hand, I wanted my Christmas recordings to fill the stereo. I wanted dig out the Christmas pop-up books for the sunroom. I wanted more candles to light the darkness. I wanted to send out Christmas cards to the people I love that live too far away. I wanted quiet afternoons napping and reading on the couch under the afghan my grandmother crocheted. I wanted long walks at twilight admiring my neighbors’ lights and festive décor. I wanted to force paper whites with their intoxicating fragrance. I wanted to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and drink Frangelico. I wanted my annual Christmas Eve walk at dusk to see the luminaria.
“Will you miss it if I don’t decorate this year?” I asked Matt, who has always loved for our house, especially at Christmastime. “I want the cranberry twinkly lights on the mantle,” he responded. “I don’t care about anything else.”
So the cranberry twinkly lights it has been. Snuggled up with the fish and the orchids and the candles and hourglasses, they symbolize both the natural seasonal world around us and of the traditions we create and make our own. Maybe Nicole would disagree, but this year it has been exactly enough.
November 11th, 2012 :: Ordinary Days
Last year I fired my dentist.
Actually, the problem wasn’t the dentist. The issue was the receptionist, who had an annoying “Thank you for not smoking” tone of voice. She was also overly enthusiastic with the reminder phone calls. She called a month before, two weeks before and the day before, always with the requirement “to call back and confirm.” I resented this task that was suddenly on MY to-do list. From the beginning, this relationship was in trouble.
And then Dolores (I don’t know if her name was actually Dolores) began calling me with random possible appointment times. “Amy,” she would say as she left a message on my voicemail, “You need to get your teeth cleaned and I have an opening in one hour.” I started getting this message at least once a week. Just hearing Dolores’ voice (again!) on my machine would irritate me. I became determined NOT to get my teeth cleaned.
After about 6 months of this dysfunctional passive-aggressive behavior, I fired my dentist. Or rather I fired Dolores, and, as a result, the dentist (who, by the way, was perfectly agreeable) had to go too. I found another dentist who didn’t seem prone to aggressive reminder phone calls. I went and had my teeth cleaned. All was right in the world.
Then a week later, I received a letter. My new friendly laid-back dentist was retiring. The practice was being taken over by someone named Tiffany. I rolled my eyes in reading this.
But as long as Tiffany didn’t get dial-happy, I didn’t much care. After all, I have good teeth. I have bad feet, terrible eyes and chronic migraines, but I have great teeth. I have never needed braces; I have never even had a cavity. Given my dental history, I wasn’t too worried about Tiffany.
Tiffany, it turned out, is about 22. She is tall and blond and sports a ponytail. She is perky. I suspected that my new dentist was a Tri Delt.
Then last month, I heard the words I never thought I’d hear: “Amy, you ought to get this tooth filled.”
“What?” I said, not understanding.
“You need to get this tooth filled.”
“What?” I repeated, still not understanding.
“You need to get this tooth filled.”
“Are you talking to me?” I asked, thinking that I had suddenly become a character in someone else’s book. I could not need a filling. I had good teeth. This “need to get this tooth filled” was someone else’s story.
It would, however, a “small” filling, my Tri Delt dentist assured me as she stood there with a six-inch needle in hand. It would “only take a minute.”
A minute later, I heard, “Uh-oh.”
If there is anything you don’t want to hear from your dentist, particularly if her name is Tiffany and she is just months removed from her last Rush Week, is “Uh-oh.”
The problem, it seemed, was no longer small. In fact, most of my tooth was rotted out. It would require drilling off half my head. I would need a crown and maybe a root canal. This is evidence, I fear, that I may be slowly rotting out from the inside out.
Or perhaps this is tangible proof that aging is not for the faint of heart. Either way, it wasn’t fun.
It’s a good thing I like Tiffany OK, although every time she calls to “check up” on me, I think for a split second it might be my younger sister calling and not my dentist. Tiffany doesn’t say anything overtly non-professional, she just sounds young and casual. As if we might be making plans to meet for drinks or something. “Hey Amy!” she begins. “Just seeing how you are doing . . .”
I’m doing fine, by the way. My bank account has taken a huge hit, of course, thanks to the pricey crown, and my jaw feels like someone took a punch at me. But I am fine. I viewed this whole episode as an excuse to eat ice cream and a chance to indulge not in warm saltwater rinses, but in sea-salted dark chocolate bars. The salt, I reasoned, ought to be beneficial in either form.
November 4th, 2012 :: Ordinary Days
Jerome is in Europe, visiting friends.
Sadly, I am not in Europe.
I am juggling other performances, other music, and other miscellaneous work. Like cleaning closets and raking leaves.
Last week before Jerome left on holiday, we got together to read through a stack of music. Jerome brought his alto and bass flute. We stumbled through unfamiliar music, delighting in the new. Performances of late have consisted primarily of repertoire that we have played for years. Music that, in Jerome’s words, we “inhabit.” Inhabiting music is comfortable and secure, and leads to solid performances. Inhabiting our music is an easy, good place to hang out. We like inhabiting.
But the novel is inspiring. “I feel scrubbed clean,” Jerome exclaimed happily, after we tripped (and rather badly at that!) through a set of Beethoven Variations neither one of us had ever seen before.
Rests, as any musician knows, are there to emphasize the musical notes around them. A rest from the intensity of the last few months of performances and rehearsals is a welcomed thing. It’s fun to have the luxury of playing together with no particular goal or deadline in sight, to bounce around inside new musical phrases, to view the world through an unfamiliar set of notes, to laugh carelessly when things go awry instead of furiously fixing things.
We are resting.
October 14th, 2012 :: Ordinary Days
Last week my friend Jerome gave me the gift of time.
This came in the form of 5 beautiful hourglasses, each one measuring a different length of time—60 minutes, 50 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes and 5 minutes.
Perhaps Jerome gave me not time exactly, but rather the visible knowledge of the passing of time. At any rate, they are lovely.
It seems like no one has enough time these days. I recognize the sense of urgency in the voices of my friends as we try to find time for coffee or lunch, in the complaints of my students who are buried under homework and soccer, in the murmurs of my husband as we each are preoccupied with our work and separate worlds. I resent the distractions of my responsibilities that push me breathlessly from one thing to the next, leaving no gentle margins of space or time.
I feel this sense of urgency even more sharply in the fall, because the beauty of the season seems to demand a certain mindfulness. For weeks now, our neighborhood YMCA has posted signs advertising a class for the elderly that read “Fall Prevention.” Every time I pass such a sign, sleepy and blurry-eyed at 5:30 in the morning, I find myself thinking, “Why do we want to prevent fall?” I have thought this at least a dozen times before catching myself and realizing that in this case “fall” isn’t a seasonal reference at all.
If I blink, I fear I will miss out on fall completely, that I will awake one morning to winter, bleak and cold, the color and glory of autumn behind us for another year. The state fair has come and gone, the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival is in full swing, there are hundreds of yellow leaves in the trees outside my window. Last week I made my first pot of green chile stew and my first cranberry apple pie, but I have yet to get to the farmer’s market for pumpkins. I have planted pansies and bulbs, but dozens of end-of-seasons garden chores still need attending. I have to dig out blankets and sweaters and boots from the basement, and pack away sandals and sundresses until next year. I have no seasonal hourglass to nudge me into action, but autumn is here.
Maybe the hourglasses arrived in my life just at the perfect moment, interrupting my thoughts not with more beeps and alarms, but with a silent, mesmerizing shift of sand. Time passes, they chide me, whether or not I am paying attention.
September 9th, 2012 :: Ordinary Days
Last week, as I sat under the glaring lights at the dentist with my mouth full of five random pieces of hardware, the assistant asked me what I did. “Piano teacher,” I mumbled around the metal in my mouth. “What?” she said. “Piano. Piano.” I said, and mimed playing the piano. “Oh! Piano!” her eyes lit up in response. “That’s what I want for Christmas. I started to learn piano, but now I need to finish.”
…But now I need to finish….In all my years of confessing to strangers that I was a piano teacher, I have never heard someone say this, as if “finishing” was a possibility, right there within reach. I live in a world where nothing is ever “finished.” The garden is never done, weeded or watered, pruned or planted. There is always more music to be learned for the next performance, a stack of recordings I should listen to, a pile of teaching repertoire that needs to be read through. I always have a backlist of topics I could write about. The house is never totally cleaned, just moderately sorted out from time to time. A pile of books is always waiting to be read; the next meal always needs to be cooked; there are always new skills to teach. Nothing is ever “finished.”
But that is the practice, after all. There is something sacred about the repetition itself, the meaning coming in the doing. “It is when we most feel like we don’t need to practice that we have the chance to really deepen our work,” my friend and yoga teacher, Patti often says. In other words, just when we feel like we are “finished” do we have the chance of really beginning.
I have been thinking about this all week. I have just finished my third week of teaching in a new semester that feels like the last one, except the kids are older and smarter and taller and funnier. We have had our first round of performance classes, in which we welcomed our friend and piano technician, Jean-Luc, who came and took the piano apart right before our very eyes. (“Amy, do you think this is a good idea?” asked one concerned kid.) We are already thinking ahead to fall recitals and performances. I am juggling rehearsals and preparation for some workshops I am giving for teachers and pedagogy students in Texas and Missouri in the next few weeks. We are, clearly, not at all “finished” around here.
There is something to be said for the ordinary routines of our lives, the practices that we stay loyal to, day in and day out, far from any finish line or end goal. I will never finish learning to play the piano to my satisfaction, or finish learning to be a wiser and more compassionate teacher and human being. I will never write the perfect paragraph or give a flawless recital. I will never be so brilliant at a workshop that I never need to give another one. I am so not finished.
But I hope that my dental assistant gets her wish, her Christmas present, her chance to “finish” her piano lessons, her chance to discover that, in the end, the real joy in the work comes when there is no finish in sight.
July 22nd, 2012 :: Ordinary Days
Recently I witnessed two people greeting one another in the grocery store. “How are you?” the woman asked. “Oh, you know,” the man replied as he grabbed a box of Cheerios off the top shelf, “livin’ the dream.”
We are trying to find the dream around here. The cats are living the dream this spring, as this has been a record year for moths. They love moths, or rather, they love to torture moths, batting them senseless and then running around the house carrying the little guys in their mouths. “I don’t think the moth did anything to deserve that,” one student remarked watching the girls play, tormenting some poor winged creature. She was right.
Matt, on the other hand, seems bent on saving moths, in a charming sort of way. One night he announced at dinner that he had rescued two moths from the choir room at church and released them outside. “Well, that’s great,” I replied, flashing immediately on the bad Chicken Soup story about saving starfish. The point of the starfish story is that in spite of the futility of saving starfish on the beach (after all, there are thousands! Ten thousand, probably!), throwing them back in the water is a small act of hope and kindness. Besides, as the punch line of the tale goes, for each starfish you save, it “matters to that one.”
“What are you trying for here?” I asked Matt. “Chicken Soup for the Choir Directors Soul?”
Without missing a beat, Matt said, “Matters to that moth.” Ah, the dream is alive and well.
Of course, the care and the rescue of the individual is the point in most of the microcosms of our lives. We teach not the faceless sample or target populations that make up the research, but the individual, vulnerable human beings that walk through our doors: Camy, with her freckles and quirky learning curves; Tony, with his boundless enthusiasm and energy; Sophie, with her fast fingers and quicker mind. Matters to that one, we tell ourselves, and that one, and that one.
Some starfish students have been flung far, living and playing in colleges across the country. “What’s new?” I email them, nudging my way into their worlds. “Oh, livin’ the dream,” responds Kara.
“You know,” I write back eagerly, “you are the second person this week I have heard use that phrase. The other guy was about 60 with a long grey ponytail and Birkenstocks. So 1970’s of both of you.”
Several days passed. Then I got this reply:
“Amy, I’m pretty sure it isn’t the same dream. Love, Kara.”
June 10th, 2012 :: Ordinary Days
The sunroom is the best place in the world to be these days.
Last summer we had an old-fashioned wooden screen built for the side door leading into the sunroom. We (I should say, I) painted it a deep eggplant purple. We (I should say our handyman) installed a ceiling fan in the sunroom. Suddenly there was air circulation in our old cottage, letting in the cool morning and evening desert air. The cats would sit for hours with their noses pressed to the screen staring out, watching the birds and feeling the breeze on their little faces. It was almost like they were outside. Almost. To quote Bruce Springsteen, The screen door slams, a most lovely sound.
In an old house, there is always a long list of things needing attention. Mostly, with lives that are already too full, our attention is elsewhere; it is amazing what we are willing to live with simply because we are too lazy and distracted to do anything about it. Somewhere on that list has been the item: Get new front doors. That item has sat on the list for 7 years.
But when you’re done, you’re done. One day, I decided that I couldn’t stand those awful useless front doors any longer. They were literally falling apart—an insult to my aesthetic senses and an invitation to anyone who wanted to break in and steal the piano. At the same time, ironically, it took a degree in engineering to open them. Lose-lose, I say.
One of the problems with the whole Getting Things Done idea around here is that it takes us a long time to decide to do anything. The potential new doors took some imagination, for sure: the old doorway had been built to accommodate the former strange-sized doors, which meant we were going to have to have new ones built. The doorframe had to be redesigned and restructured. Then there would have to be some painting of the lovely eggplant purple color. Inevitably, that would be my job. (I suggested to Matt that, in lots of households, the man would be the one doing all the priming, painting, scraping and so on, and the woman would pick out the color and nag. Matt paused and then responded, “Yeah, I think this is better. The job actually gets done. You don’t have to nag. And I don’t have to do it.” Ah, there in a nutshell is the world according to Matt Greer.)
But in spite of the fact that this was not going to be an easy project, I had decided that this was the top priority in a long list of top priorities. And deciding something needs to be done is the first critical step in getting anywhere. I found a wonderful local door company who came out and measured our wacky doorway. I determined that I wanted a tiny set of French doors each with five big windows. I also wanted---and here’s the kicker, which subjected me to many strange stares and looks of “What are you thinking lady?” from the construction guys---I wanted French screen doors as well. Basically, high from the success of the previous summer’s screen door installation and subsequent increase in air circulation, I was greedy: I wanted more air.
For someone who is, by all definitions, an “indoorsy” person, I like to blur the margins between the inside and outside as much as possible. This was a good idea, I kept telling my new friends at Pat’s Doors. We can do this. We should do this.
They were, to put it mildly, skeptical. These were door guys. They wanted a big oak front door, or as an allowance for my 1930’s style house, maybe a nice set of French doors, but with frosted glass. No one, they told me sternly, puts screen doors on the front of the house.
I do. What I lack in formality I make up for in creativity. We have, I told the door guys with equal conviction, a cottage. A cottage. A cottage needs screen doors.
Six weeks later, my good friends at Pat’s Doors call. My doors were done. Would I like to come see them? I would, in fact.
I arrived early one Thursday morning. “I’m here to see my doors,” I said. “Oh!” the woman behind the counter responded, “Are you the one with the cutest doors ever?”
That would be me.
For 10 minutes I was passed from one person to another. The handoff in every case was, “This is the woman for those really cute doors in the back.” I left smiling, validated.
I stopped smiling when, a few days later, I caught sight of the sledgehammers my buddies were using to break down the old doorway. I had no idea this was going to be a construction project. Plaster dust flew everywhere. My cats went into hiding. In retrospect, that was a good idea.
Our sunroom houses not only lovely breezes caught by the ceiling fan, but is home to about 300 books, my desk, chairs for waiting students, rugs, and a dozen orchids and cacti. Within minutes the entire room was covered in grit. Just about then, my housekeeper shows up. We were throwing an end-of-the-year party for Quintessence, and I had arranged for Ellen to come clean. I had not anticipated the construction project. “Uh,” I said to her as she unloaded her cleaning products and brooms, “I guess maybe concentrate on the back of the house?”
And then the plumber arrived. This is the time of year when the swamp cooler must be cleaned out and set up for the season. Last weekend Matt climbed on the roof, took one look (OK, maybe two) and announced that this year he was calling the plumber. Mr. Plumber got on the roof and started banging on something. The Door Guys are joyfully swinging sledgehammers in the sunroom. Ellen is scrubbing the bathroom. This is the worst day of the cats’ lives.
(Two days later, a 60-foot branch off our ancient elm tree breaks off and falls into the garden. “Matt!” I called. “We need some tree guys out here. NOW!” This involved three hours of working to the roar of a chainsaw. It was a week.)
With all the chaos, I almost forgot I had a rehearsal. My good friend and musical partner, Jacque and I were performing Barber’s Hermit Songs at a local venue that week, Sunday Chatter. We had set a rehearsal. As it turned out, we rehearsed in the midst of a circus. (“Do you think it will bother them?” Jacque asked, concerned. “Jacque, we don’t care if it bothers them. Although it may be hard to tell at the moment, this is MY house.”)
Ellen finished the bathroom and kitchen. The sledgehammers were replaced by nail guns (construction versus deconstruction). The plumber continued to bang on the swamp cooler on the roof. Ellen was literally driving down the street when Jacque and I hear a loud Whoosh! and six months of dust, leaves, sticks, seedpods, and grit falls through the vent into the hall. That would be hall in the back of the house. The one area of the house that Ellen just cleaned.
I began to renounce my former greediness and wish I had settled for a nice traditional oak door. Or better yet, had not broken my general inertia around house projects. We could have lived with those old doors a while longer. Forever, in fact.
The plumber, having successfully trashed the back of the house, left. Students began arriving for their lessons. They were thrilled with the excitement and chaos. I taught to the rhythm of a nail gun.
Some 8 hours—8 hours!!—later, the doors are done. They are, in a word, breathtaking. They are everything I dreamed and imagined. They are beautiful.
The next morning, I clean. And clean. And clean some more.
May 6th, 2012 :: Ordinary Days
Outside the window, the roses wave in the sunlight....
The table and chairs beckon, waiting for the first al fresco lunch of the season...
The courtyard, which just weeks ago was covered in snow....
....now is bursting with green....
Pink tulips stand at attention....
The orange poppies are rioting for space and attention....
The hollyhocks are staking their claim everywhere.....
Purple alliums look like giant lollipops....
The roses climb up the walls....
The back garden sits quietly under the shade of the elm treess.....
Yellow Lady Bank roses fall over the trellis....
Brightly colored chairs lure us out in the evenings, to sit and linger in the fading New Mexico light, cocktails in hand....
March 11th, 2012 :: Ordinary Days
I have too many open loops these days.
In “Getting Things Done,” a book aimed at improving productivity and efficiency in the workplace, David Allen refers to “open loops” as any task that takes up mental space and is in some way unfinished and needs attention. These things, he says, distract us and rob us of our creativity and focus.
That would be about a hundred things around here, all demanding space in my ever-decreasing mental capacity.
First, there are the predictable things: the teaching, the performing, the rehearsals. I played a house concert with Jerome, the other half of the JimGreer Duo, in January, which included the Weber Trio, a gem of a piece. We—Jerome, Christian (cellist) and I--are repeating that delightful work on a concert in a few weeks.
But before that gig rolls around, I must learn Fred Hersch’s 24 Variations on a Bach Chorale (the Lenten hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”). This is a demanding piece, some variations rivaling Chopin Etudes technically. Mr Hersch clearly has large hands. I don’t.
However, working on this piece in preparation for several upcoming concerts is a rewarding way to practice Lent, to observe this religious season of reflection and austerity. While I rarely attend church anymore, my worldview is still shaped by the Christian calendar. Or at least the notion that Fat Tuesday involves pancakes.
Thanks to an inconvenient and unavoidable graduate school schedule, I was forced to schedule six days of teaching every week this semester. That would be SIX days. Let me tell you, friends, it is the sixth day that will kick your butt. Especially when the seventh day includes performances or performance classes, thereby giving you not a single day off before another week begins. I’m dying here.
Speaking of performance classes, the older kids (the Chopin Class) recently held their long anticipated iPod party, which they earned from points acquired by their one-week pieces. IPod parties are evenings where, after an abbreviated performance class, they each bring one song of their choice to share, complete with the infamous 5 Fun Facts about the artists or genre. Their song, I assured them, could be anything. “But no, ‘Parental Restrictions’, right?” one kid asked. (They know and use this term?) At our recent iPod party, we heard an elephant orchestra from Thailand, some screeching Scottish pop song, a 1970’s electronic piece, a Celtic ballad. Such a surprising eclectic mix. I am always fascinated to learn what the kids are listening to these days.
As we chatted over the backdrop of bad popular music and cupcakes (the cupcakes, at least, rocked), we discussed the terms required to earn the next iPod party. I threw out some number of total points needed, a number that I can’t even recall now. I did this, I must confess, completely without forethought or consideration. Apparently, when the calculations were computed, it was an outrageously large number. Or so the kids complained, whining that it would be “like a year” before they could accumulate that many points. Yeah, that’s the idea, kids. I need at least a year before I am ready to subject myself to more Russian rap songs.
On the other hand, yesterday Ryan (of the “that cat is adorable” fame) came into his lesson announcing that he had just started a book and already he loved it so much. “It is my favorite book in the whole world!” (This kid speaks entirely in italics. Matt and I have decided he is the seven year-old version of Chris, the Rob Lowe character from “Parks and Recreation”.)
“What is the book?” I asked him. “Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” he said, his freckled face glowing. Glowing, I tell you. It was enough, almost, to forgive his older sisters and their bad choices in screechy pop music.
Open loops, all these things.
And then there is graduate school, the demonic cause of my killer schedule this semester. Last November, I enrolled in my final six hours of my master’s degree in Educational Psychology (the final six! The end so near….) only to learn, come the first day of class in January, that one of the courses was cancelled. I was annoyed for about five minutes until I realized that this would mean I wouldn’t have to take comps this semester after all. This, I decided, was a gift from the gods.
Turns out, it was more than a gift. It was actually a lifesaving tourniquet. The class I have been left with this semester is a required course on assessment and measurement. I wish I cared about assessment and all of its intricacies. But I don’t. What is worse is that I basically understand nothing. The class might as well be taught in Chinese for all that I’m comprehending. The course has a prerequisite requirement of introductory statistics, which I took (God help me) two years ago. I retained nothing. Nothing.
This has caused me great anxiety (see above for my track record in calculating anything beyond 4/4 time). At night, I am being haunted by stressful dreams in which I am in an ever-changing situation that is in some way threatening and I cannot do the task required fast enough to get out before it is too late. (What “too late” is, I don’t know.) Or I am late for something, and I just cannot get there (before the plane takes off, or the concert begins, or the train departs). Or I can’t learn something in time (like introductory statistics). Or I have forgotten something important, (like learning an entire recital worth of music). I wake from these repeated nightmares sweating. Clearly, every last one of them is a classic Type-A stress-induced dream. I’m blaming that damn class.
Another loop. Actually, that class might count as about ten loops.
And then there are the miscellaneous open loops: the presentation I am giving in NYC at a conference next month, the travel and registration details I need to attend to in order to be present at this conference, the ten books I am reading, the seasonal garden tasks that are beckoning, the random household chores necessary to keep food on the table and clothes on our back (Recently, Matt mentioned, very kindly, that he had no clean underwear and was down to his “I love Jesus” socks, which he generally avoids wearing. I snapped back that I had “just done laundry,” like two days before, which I swore was true, but then I had to acknowledge the mountain of clothes spilling out of the hamper, which was clear evidence that I was wrong. I have lost all sense of time, reeling as I am from loop to loop.)
This week I had another bad dream. I was teaching the Chopin performance class, and it was another iPod party. I went to the refrigerator to get the cupcakes, only to discover that I had forgotten to buy them. But instead of causing me stress, this oversight made me laugh. I laughed so hard I woke up.
I see this dream as an improvement. Maybe something, in spite of the hundreds of open loops, is started to shift and relax internally.
Meanwhile, the golden finches have found the feeders I have hung in the courtyard. While I teach, I keep watch out the window at the birds. The 200 bulbs my mother and I planted last fall are beginning to emerge from the ground, and the viburnum beyond the courtyard wall is threatening to burst into rosy bloom. I wait, stressed and anxious as I might be, while the season loops from one into another.
December 4th, 2011 :: Ordinary Days
My studio recital took place a few weeks ago. After the concert, while the kids were eating cookies and chasing each other as a way of releasing all the pent-up energy accumulated from having to sit quietly for an hour, one mother came up to me. “Amy,” she began, “I have to tell you what Jonah said this morning.”
Apparently, Jonah had woken up that morning and announced that he had to have “Amy’s email address.” “Why?” his mother had asked him. “What do you need to tell her?”
“I have to tell her that there is just NO WAY that I’m going to be able to play the dynamics tonight at the recital,” he quite earnestly told his mother. “I have to write her right now.”
Telling me this his mother laughed at her child’s seriousness about his anticipated performance. I laughed too, thinking that in spite of our careful work and preparation, there were plenty of kids that evening who must have decided that there was NO WAY they were going to be able to do the dynamics. Or for that matter, various other musical elements. Under stress, we all make compromises.
I understand completely. I have a long list these days of things that there is just NO WAY I can do. When Matt and I recognized several weeks ago that we couldn’t pull off another event, no matter how fabulous, I found myself taking stock internally. Faced with putting on evening clothes and heading out to play another concert of great music, I think longingly of a night curled up on the couch with my cats and a book. I relish a morning spent in the garden planting bulbs. I am happy puttering in my sun-filled house watering plants and doing laundry. Yesterday I baked a pie. It was heaven.
None of these are new revelations, or new insights, just a reminder of how precious the little inconsequential acts of daily life can be. Even when--or maybe especially when---compared with what appears to be a more glamorous fare: performances, receptions, sparkling shoes and dresses, loud parties, big audiences, thunderous applause.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that too, but for the next month or so, I’m content to lie low. I want long slow conversations with my husband over a bottle of wine. I want candlelit dinners with close friends and evenings spent cuddling in bed under pile of blankets watching an old movie. I want to listen to every one of my holiday recordings and to linger over hot chocolate on a cold afternoon.
There is just NO WAY I’m going to live life outside of the comfortable mezzo dynamic range. Those exciting fortes and intense pianos will have to wait.
November 27th, 2011 :: Ordinary Days
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind lately.
When I made this comment to a friend, she replied, “Amy, it always is. Your life is always crazy busy.” She’s right, of course, but I hardly think I am alone. I do not presume to suggest that I have the corner on busyness, or that my overflowing schedule is in any way more important. But sitting squarely inside the days, hours and minutes of my life , this is the perspective from which I view the world. And lately, that view has been rushing by at an insane pace.The problem, as I am fully prepared to admit, is that in the last few years I have taken on several rather big things without subtracting anything from the equation. This is bad math to be sure, but as someone who burst into tears in 5th grade the first time I encountered remainders while doing long division, this failure to calculate the lack of remainder time in my own life comes as no real surprise.Two year ago, my husband added a semi-professional community chorus to his work life. This group, Quintessence, was the kind of choir he had been interested in conducting for some time. It was made up of singers who auditioned to get into the group, many of whom were professional musicians in their real lives. This, he told me when he accepted the job, would be the chance for him to do all that music he loved that had nothing to do with Jesus.I supported Matt’s decision to take on this additional group, although from the beginning I made it clear that this was his gig, not mine. For one season, I watched mainly from the sidelines, accompanying only sporadically, before deciding to throw myself whole-heartedly into playing for and singing with the group on a full-time basis. I have never regretted this decision. Matt and I have had great fun working together, and I have loved singing regularly for the first time since college. (And I must confess, I was hardly the model chorister back then, sitting as I did in the back row with a Vogue magazine hidden behind my choir folder. With this kind of history, it is amazing a choir director ever married me.) But with the addition of Quintessence in our lives, our quiet Sunday evenings of dinner and an early night to bed are gone. About the same time as Quintessence entered the equation, I went back to school, beginning a graduate degree in Educational Psychology. This has translated to basically another job, one with deadlines and papers and projects and complicated class schedules. For five semesters now I have juggled classes with teaching, homework with performances. “You are the only one I know who can fold in graduate school into your life and no one even knows,” one friend said to me recently. While it is true I don’t talk very much about being in school, I am hardly superwoman. In fact, as of late it is becoming more and more apparent to me that I am definitely not in the running for any superpowers whatsoever.
Several weeks ago, after a run of demanding performances and the realization that we have been subjecting ourselves to this for months now, Matt and I looked at each other and admitted that something had to go. That something, this time, was the St Cecelia party, our annual occasion to toast the patron saint of music. This affair usually takes place the day after Thanksgiving. It is a night of impromptu musical performances, lots of wine and food, and a crowd--and I mean a crowd--of people. Friends often begin asking us about St Cecelia months in advance. In one form or another, “St Cecelia” has been happening in our collective lives for the last dozen years.
But sometimes I think I like the idea of St Cecelia better than the actual party itself. Or perhaps that is the exhaustion of the last few months talking. At any rate, this year we are taking a rest from St Cecelia, a small gesture in trying to claim some quiet and sanity if not in our lives at large, at least into this Thanksgiving weekend.
Which, as I think about it, is not a bad way to celebrate the fest day of St Cecelia after all.
Because here is what I know: that in spite of the busyness, the stresses, the insanity, there is nothing we'd rather be doing with our lives than what we already are.
So here's to St Cecelia, who blesses not only our music, but the silences in between.
October 16th, 2011 :: Ordinary Days
There is no way around it: summer is officially over.
As we all have just endured the hottest summer on record, I should be leaping with joy. Instead, I feel a bit torn about the idea. I am over six weeks into this semester of lessons. We have had our first performance classes. I am deep into my pile of reading for graduate school. I can even check off the first few performances of the season. Clearly, summer is over.
The weather has finally gotten the memo and shifted towards those lovely perfect days of cool nights and mornings, and plenty of blue skies in between. Last weekend, we even had an unseasonably early first snow fall, waking up Saturday morning to see the mountain covered in white. Our swamp cooler, which labored day and night for three months now, is finally bedded down for the winter. The monsoon season, that we thought might never come, arrived late, bringing rain and humidity. One is welcomed, the other not. Last week I had two cancelled lessons because kids were sick. This has never happened this early in the semester. It seems that after this relentlessly hot summer everybody is dragging a little, a bit out of sorts.
On the upside, we are still grilling. After years of talking about it, we finally acquired a grill this summer, and have become those annoying people who only want to talk about grilling. We will forever think of this summer as the Summer of the Grill. Or the Summer of the Betta Fish. Or the Summer I finally climbed La Luz. Or the Summer of the Birthday Dinner. Now that I think about it, it will be hard to decide upon a name for the summer.
But it was thanks to the grill that I may have inadvertently stumbled upon a new career. While Lora and I were in NYC, we ate an appetizer in a Chelsea restaurant that made us swoon. It was dates stuffed with goat cheese wrapped in bacon. It was a little piece of heaven on Earth.
Immediately, we began plotting how we could recreate this divine creation at home. But what exactly happened to the dates and goat cheese and bacon after it was assembled was a bit unclear to us. In retrospect, it was especially unclear as the evening had involved cocktails at the St. Regis hotel and then several glasses of wine at dinner.
Back home what we decided to do was put them on spears and grill them.
This was brilliant on every level. It was like eating candy. “I think,” Lora announced solemnly after tasting the first bite, “that you and I should quit our jobs and open a restaurant and serve these. And nothing else.”
“We could call the place Dates and Bacon,” I suggested.
“Dates and Bacon: And Not a Damn Thing Else,” Lora added.
Just last week, someone asked me, “Did you have a good summer?” I did, in fact. I read a lot of books. I swam a lot of laps. (In fact, recently I have gotten my pre-dawn swim up to a mile in distance. This is A LOT of laps, I can tell you.) I taught a lot of lessons (metaphorically, many miles of lessons). I played some good concerts, went on a couple of fun trips, spent hours in my garden puttering. It was, indeed, a good summer.
Around town the smell of roasted green chile wafts through the air reminding us that indeed fall is here. Matt and I are eagerly anticipating our annual getaway weekend in Taos. I’m dreaming of blankets on the bed and making soup. Eventually, the pansies and mums will get planted; the bulbs a student brought me from Amsterdam will get put in the ground. I’ll buy pumpkins for the courtyard and get out my boots and sweaters.
But until then, the grill stands ready for another round of Dates and Bacon.
September 11th, 2011 :: Ordinary Days
First of all, Pang is dead.
Which is only one of many strange and somewhat disconcerting things going on around here. In fact, I am beginning to wonder if the lines between the natural world and our man-made artificial one are now officially blurred.
This summer I was visiting a friend in her home. Sitting on a windowsill in her kitchen was a glass jar with a little blue fish swimming in it. “That’s charming,” I said. “How long have you had that fish?” (thinking that the answer would be 5 minutes.) “Five years,” my friend replied.
Immediately I went home and announced to Matt and everyone I knew that I was going to get a betta fish to swim in my own pretty vase. “I think the cats would be amused,” I said to anyone who would listen. “And it’s so lovely, a fish swimming in a beautiful glass jar. So very Matisse-like.”
My husband and all my friends declared that they were going to turn me into the Animal Humane Society. “You can’t get a fish to entertain your cats. That’s not very nice to the fish.” Harrumph, I thought to myself, buying time.
At our house we have what we call “house meetings,” a time set aside every few weeks to discuss household kinds of things, like who should be taking out the trash (Matt), who should keep the study clean (Matt), who should be better about picking up his socks (Matt). We talk about money issues and compare calendars. We discuss major purchases and future plans. Friends have started sending us agenda items for the Greer house meeting. “Find a date when we can have dinner together,” friends will say. “You can talk about it at the next house meeting.”
I did not think the purchase of three betta fish needed to be brought up at the house meeting.
Instead, one day I simply rode my bicycle over to the nearby pet store and bought three betta fish---a gold one, a blue one, and a red one. I put them in three lovely glass vases (turns out they are aggressive and won’t tolerate co-habitation) and set two of them on the mantle and one on the wall between the sun-room and the dining room. They seemed very happy, and relieved not to be living at the pet store anymore. My cats could not care less about the presence of fish in the house.
“You can name the fish,” I generously said to Matt, who, unlike the cats, wasn’t at all sure fish were a good idea. “Ping, Pang and Pong,” he decided, after a few days of careful consideration.
For several weeks, all was well. My students LOVED the fish. It was truly delightful to be sitting on the couch reading and to look up at the mantle and see a fish swimming by. They hardly ate a thing and didn’t need their litter boxes scooped out, making them even more low-maintainence than the girls. It seemed we had struck a nice balance with the universe.
Then one morning when I looked in on the fish I discovered that Pang was missing. Gone. Not in the bowl at all.
There he was lying on the floor, clearly a victim of his own suicidial act of leaping out of the pretty vase. “See,” my husband reprimanded me. “That was not a happy fish after all.”
I disagreed. Clearly, Pang has misjudged his space. That was unfortunate, but not reason to give up this plan of owning fish. Besides the kids had grown very attached to the fish. I was going to have to replace Pang and hope no one noticed.
No one did. We named the second generation blue fish “2Pang”. 2Pang seemed a bit more lethargic than his predecessor, but perhaps that would be a good thing, as he would be less likely to try jumping to his death. I was content, liking the symmetry of living with ONE man, TWO cats, and THREE betta fish.
And then about a month later, I woke up late one Sunday morning, and 2Pang was dead, floating listlessly in the water.
I had played a concert the night before that had left me particularly exhausted. Sleeping in until 9 o’clock was unusual behavior for me. I felt groggy and confused. And then 2Pang was dead. It was a disconcerting start to the day.
Later that morning, I was sitting at the computer when I heard a “meow” outside my window. I went out, and there was a tiny kitten stuck in a tree. This seemed a sign from God. Clearly the message is that when God takes away a betta fish, She gives you a kitten instead. Perhaps I was meant to live with ONE man, TWO betta fish, and THREE cats.
Having no other recourse but to rescue the kitten, I did so and brought the adorable white and orange creature indoors. My cats were not amused.
In fact, Godiva went into hiding and didn’t come out for three days.
I determined that the kitten was one of two offsprings of a stray calico that my neighbors had been feeding. It needed a home. It was growing increasingly obvious as time went on that it would need a home that wasn’t ours.
Not that the little guy was unhappy in anyway. Nonplussed by the reaction of my older cranky cats, he was the most cheerful little kitten on the planet. He LOVED piano lessons. (“Hey! Did you hear that? The door is opening again. Maybe there’s someone I should go meet.”) He followed me from room to room. He slept on Matt’s feet while he shaved. I started calling him “Gimlet.” We were in serious danger of falling in love with the little guy.
Coming to our good senses, we had an emergency house meeting. “We can’t keep him,” Matt told me firmly. “Look how it is affecting the girls.” “I know, I know,” I said, as Gimlet sat on my lap and purred contentedly.
We sent out a plea to everyone we knew. “Free adorable kitten!” we emailed. “Come and see.”
Within no time at all, we had a response, and soon Gimlet was gone, scampering out of our lives as carelessly as he had scampered into them.
Meanwhile, TrePang is swimming merrily on my mantle, restoring balance in the universe.
June 5th, 2011 :: Ordinary Days
There is a secret steakhouse in Albuquerque. Known only by word of mouth, you enter Vernon’s
through an unmarked door in the back of a shopping center. Knocking, you are greeted by a voice asking for your password and reservation. You are then interrogated as to your intentions before you are allowed to enter. It is all very gangster, and very mysterious.
During the last week of the semester, in an attempt to bribe myself into finishing up a paper I was not inspired to write, I took myself up to the local bakery/diner, Flying Star
, a few blocks from my house. My intention was that there I could write without being distracted by the cats, or the dishes in the sink, or the closet that suddenly---after months and months of being ignored---couldn’t go another minute without being organized.
Next to the doors at Flying Star are bulletin boards cluttered with notices about upcoming events. Eager to delay getting down to business, I stopped and perused the signs. The first one that caught my eyes was a notice for a Secret Garden Tour. There was nothing about this not to like. After all, two of my favorite words are “secret” and “garden” (Matt would tell you that if they had managed to also slip in the words “cottage” and “cats” I would be completely happy.). I noted the date (the weekend after my semester ended) and immediately called my garden partner in crime, Anne, to let her know of this event. Then having completely exhausted my attempts at procrastination, I reluctantly took myself into the bakery to do my work.
A week went by. I finished up four papers and turned them in, taught a week of make-up lessons, attended a student’s senior recital and graduation party, and sorted through a stack of files, cleaned off my desk, and scrubbed out the litter box. Remembering the upcoming garden tour and realizing I had no information besides the date, I walked up to Flying Star to read the sign again.
It was gone.
So back home I went to search online. (Matt laughed when I told him of this chain of events. “Why, Amy, why would you not look on-line first? Why would you walk six blocks to look at a sign?” Sadly, I never--ever--think to use technology first. It is still a last resort, which explains why I flail around helplessly so much of the time.) After a quick Google search, I find the tour, and locate a nearby nursery where I can secure tickets for Anne and me. At the nursery, I ask about tickets and was told I could only use cash. I didn’t have cash on me so I ask if tickets would be available at the door. The cashier didn’t know. Nor did he know who I could call to find out. Back to square one.
I return to the Internet and while there is still no additional information given on the website, I do locate the organization sponsoring the tour and call. “I’m interested in the secret garden tour,” I say to the woman who answers the phone.
“Oh yes,” she responds brightly.
“Can I buy tickets at the door?” I ask her.
“Of course you can,” she replies.
“Great! Now, where would that be?”
“I can’t tell you where the tour is located until you buy a ticket,” she says.
“But you just said I could buy a ticket at the door.”
“That’s right,” she says, cheerfully.
“But . . . where’s the door?” I am nothing if not persistent.
“I can’t tell you until you buy a ticket.” Unfortunately, she is consistent in her answers.
We are getting nowhere. I try starting over.
“So, if you were me, and wanted to go on this lovely secret garden tour, what would you do?”
“If I were you, I would drive down Los Arboles east of 12th street at nine o’clock Saturday morning and follow the crowds.”
Seriously? This is unbelievable. This is truly a secret garden tour. Or, more likely, this is representative of how things work in Albuquerque.
Reporting this to Matt later, he suggests that we try knocking on the door of Vernon’s Steakhouse to see if they know anything. Anne’s husband Dan tells me that he would like to go too, but he has a tennis tournament, only he doesn’t yet know where, because it is a secret. He is just going to drive around until someone tells him he is in the right place.
Anne and I do, indeed, find the tour. After all that, it is rather underwhelming.
All photos are of my garden, which is not a secret garden at all.
May 15th, 2011 :: Ordinary Days
As I write this, the wind outside is threatening to blow the house down. This is not the first time in the last month that this has occurred. It is raining sticks and limbs, broken off from our old elm trees in the back. I can’t see the mountains because the air is so hazy and filled with dust. Before I lived in New Mexico, I thought tumbleweeds existed only in Roadrunner cartoons. I’ve learned otherwise. Driving down the highway, tumbleweeds as big as my car roll across the road and into my windshield. A month ago, I played a recital in Taos during what might have been the worst windstorm ever. I thought perhaps the church where we were performing might very well come crashing down. I understand that these winds are small potatoes in comparison to the weather damage that has occurred in other parts of the country. I know that spring in New Mexico is a windy time of year. I know all of this. And yet, as I sit huddled inside at my computer, I am beginning to think that this might be the year where the winds will never die down.
In other ways, the spring is wrapping up altogether too quickly. I recently heard a theory that I have since adopted as gospel. Apparently, in our collective sub-conscious is this notion that there will always be at least a month between Easter and the end of the semester. Such was not the case this year. There were, instead, a mere two weeks after the Easter bunny hopped away and the last push to finals began. Two. Weeks. When I realized this, I nearly choked. I am not a procrastinator, but there was no way around the ugly truth: I was going to have to start moving at top speed if there was any hope of finishing not only my schoolwork -- papers, projects, etc. -- but also if I was going to be ready for all the myriad of end-of-year activities in the studio: festivals, spring recital, concerts, etc.
I am not the only one who was under some mistaken notion about the calendar this spring. In one class, the professor handed out the final project (basically an 8-12 page paper disguised as something else) telling us not to panic because we still had 3 weeks. When someone pointed out that we only had 2 weeks until the end of the semester, he grew noticeably white. I suspect it was not out of compassion for our time that this visible panic happened, but rather that it was entirely selfish on his part. At that moment, he probably realized how much he might still have to do before the semester could be put to bed.
Then in the midst of the end of year craziness, on the day before Easter, my grandmother died. She was the perfect, quintessential grandmother, down to her white hair and the crocheting that never left her side. She was 94, and in the last few years had suffered multiple strokes, leaving her nearly bed-ridden and knowing no one. None of us who loved her wanted to see her linger like that (Indeed she would have been quite put out to imagine that she had!), and so in spite of our great sadness, it was a blessing to see her go.
But this meant that in the middle of the race to the end of the semester, Matt and I flew home to KC. He was planning a trip anyway to be a part of his older sister’s 50th birthday celebration. Grandma would have been pleased to imagine even in death she managed not to inconvenience too many people. Originally, I had begged out of this birthday trip, because it fell on the same weekend of performance classes, a local music music festival and a children’s choir concert that three of my students were accompanying. However, life--or in this case death-- has a way of changing our plans. Instead, I found helpful parents and colleagues to cover my work, sent the students off to do their jobs with my fingers crossed, and got on a plane, with my pile of papers to edit and my laptop. It turned into a weekend of respective life celebrations: a milestone birthday and a gathering to remember and honor a grandmother we loved.
While this trip home gave us a brief respite from our frantic pace, it also unfortunately ate four days out of my precious few. Coming back, I had to work at double speed to make up for lost time. My students, freed of my hovering, performed beautifully, reminding me once again, that if I have truly done my job, then as they grow up and away from me, they should need me less and less.
As it turns out, my spring studio recital last Saturday night may have been the best one of my teaching career. I am graduating a senior this month, the last of a group of students that have been one by one graduating over the last few years. It’s the end of an era, for that group of kids all came to me as transfer students from other teachers. The slightly younger mid-high/underclassman group that is stepping in to take their places are all mine---good or bad. I have had some of them for as long as I have been living in New Mexico. They are, in many respects, a stronger group of pianists, even as they are going through a particularly squirrelly age. Saturday night I watched my senior play his last studio recital (his solo senior recital is still ahead of us in a few weeks) thinking fondly of all the kids that walk out of our lives in search of their own. But this next group is feisty enough to keep me on my toes, I have no doubt. Studios change; chapters in our lives open and close. There’s been a lot of both lately.
The semester is now officially behind us. I am not taking summer school this year, relishing the months ahead devoid of reading textbooks and writing research papers. It’s easy to be overly optimistic about how much time---how many days, and literally hours---will be all mine in the next few months of summer. Life does have a way of filling a void. But for now, I’m pretending that the summer is an open canvas waiting to be filled. I want to swim more laps and do more yoga. Crack open that pile of books that have been waiting patiently for me. Dive into some music of my choosing. Learn how to throw pots. Hike every weekend. And maybe, if this wind ever stops, there will be long lazy evenings in the garden nursing a glass of wine while the stars come out. I can’t wait.
March 27th, 2011 :: Ordinary Days
I’ve been thinking lately about Selma.
Selma is a sheep, a animal character in Jutta Bauer’s children book by the same name. I love this book, and give it to everyone I know. Once in an American Music Teacher column I referenced this charming story in an illustration about learning to love the life you have.
That seems a good lesson to return to these days.
I was propelled into beginning this Educational Psychology degree for many reasons. I have long been fascinated with the psychology of teaching and learning and the intersection of music as a subject. In the last few years, I have grown increasingly more dissatisfied with the assumptions and values of the music teaching profession, with its emphasis on performance practices rather than on the possible transformation of the person sitting on the bench.
But when I am completely honest with myself, I also know that I feared the answer to the question, “Is this enough?” Is my current life--teaching and performing, reading and writing, yoga and hiking, gardening and entertaining--enough for the next 40 years? More than anything, it was the sense of not being sure of the answer that sent me racing after another degree. I want options, I’ve told myself over and over again. I don’t only want the scholarship and knowledge I will gain in this degree program, but I also want the open doors such credentials might provide me. I want options.
Now waist-deep in this program, I am no more sure than I ever was. Which brings me back to Selma. For you see, Selma is a sheep who is content with her life of eating grass, playing with her children, exercising, and having her daily chat with her friend Mrs. Miller. In fact, when asked what she would do if she had more time or won a million dollars, she responds that she would, in fact, like to eat some grass, play with her children, exercise, and every night have a chat with Mrs Miller before falling fast asleep. This, we are told, is the secret to happiness.
I think about Selma almost every day. I think about Selma when I am overwhelmed with school projects, when faced with hours of lessons, when sitting down to a long rehearsal with a colleague, when staring at the computer willing an essay into shape. What would I do if I had more time? Well, I’d teach some students, practice the piano, rehearse with my friends and colleagues, write a little and at night have a chat with my husband before falling fast asleep. What would I do if I won a million dollars? Well, I’d teach some students, practice the piano, rehearse with my friends and colleagues, write a little and at night have a chat with my husband before falling fast asleep.
I don’t know, and to dwell too much on that question may be borrowing trouble from the future. Today it is enough. Today I’m a contented enough student, enjoying my classes this semester, how far I’ll make it in this degree program I don’t know. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Today I am a happy teacher, fascinated by the tiny almost imperceptible moments of learning and transformation that takes place in the piano lesson, and the ever present challenge of teaching kids to think. I am a satisfied pianist, content with my practice schedule and my performing projects, grateful to have such talented and inspirational musical colleagues with whom to make music. I have writing projects that motivate me, and a garden to plan and plant. And at night, after a long day of work and play, I have a husband waiting with a glass of wine.
It is enough.
November 28th, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
I have a pumpkin growing in my flower bed.
At least I think it is a pumpkin. Could be a watermelon. Or a squash. A really big one.
This startles me more than it does you, I'm sure. Maybe for most of the likes of you, growing pumpkins in your flower bed is an ordinary occurrence, nothing to take special note of or worth mentioning. But for me, this belongs right up there with the Ripley Believe It or Not! entry about the fat lady.
I shouldn't be so surprised at the emergence of a pumpkin-like thing in the midst of my irises and lavender. After all, for several years now, when it's time to get rid of the pumpkins and decorative squash (I do love my harvest mantle) I have simply thrown whole pumpkins into the compost pile. I don't even pretend to chop them up. I just toss them in and forget about them.
From the beginning, Matt has been reprimanding me about this behavior, declaring that those pumpkins would not decompose or whatever it is that we want them to do. But I have great faith in the 500 worms crawling around in the compost, and besides this time of year can't be bothered with chores like chopping up pumpkins. There are better ways to spend my time. Like baking pies.
Actually, the idea of baking pies is a pipe dream, right up there with managing compost piles (as opposed to just throwing things in there and crossing my fingers). Who has time for pies?
Once again, the refrain of a busy life is the tune we are singing these days. I have come to realize that this is simply the soundtrack of our lives and hardly deserves a headline. It isn't even, I have recently decided, a bad thing. It just is. We are busy people. We are also generally happy people. These two things can, in fact, co-exist merrily.
By all rights, we should have eased into this fall. What with that broken leg and all. ("I am a tough cookie," I said to my husband this summer after we learned I had been walking on a broken leg for 7 weeks. He looked at me amused, "Yeah, and for all these years I have thought you were basically a cupcake.") But it turns out I can limp at a record pace. There were concerts to give, a "world tour" to attend to, lessons to teach, rehearsals to play. I gave a workshop at the New Mexico state convention on teaching and thinking holistically. I swam my laps at the pool, and hobbled to yoga classes. I folded cranes.
In the moments in between, I moonlighted as a graduate student
. This semester I have been taking Motivational Theories and Intro to Statistics. Want to guess which one is motivating? Thanks to motivational theories, I have a hundred and one ways to talk intellectually about concepts I only intuitively understood before. On the other hand, I am a hundred and one standard deviation points away from buying into statistics. Apparently, as I look around at my classmates, I am the only one in the class who understands that these numbers are All Made Up. I will jump the hoops required to pass this class, performing the mathematical operations necessary to manipulate the numbers into strange and unusual shapes, but I haven't forgotten that these numbers represent an experimental world that doesn't actually exist. That this experiments and these statistics might be somewhat helpful in understanding the world, I'll accept. BUT I take it all with a big grain of salt. As far as I can see, we are lightyears away from reality. Nothing about these numbers has any bearing on Lucy and Linus when I am back in my studio trying to focus unruly 8 year-olds.
In October a college friend died of pancreatic cancer. Three weeks before she died, Debbie and her husband Dave traveled to New Mexico to visit. We were having dinner at our house, and I shared my frustrations with trying to juggle finishing a degree I am not completely sold on, with the day-to-day challenges of my musical life and career. "Well," Debbie said with the wisdom of someone who had been forced to wrestle with her own issues many, many times since being diagnosed with cancer, "you have to decide, is there any other way you'd rather be spending this time?"
I think of that, and her, a lot these days. The answer isn't simple. For all the days I think, yes, I can just shut up and jump these hoops and stop trying to wring meaning out of every step of this degree, there are at least as many days I think that there are 500 other things I'd rather be doing. I want to throw pots. I want to dive deeper into my yoga practice. I want to go on a silent retreat. I want time to hike in the Sandias. I want more time to write and practice, instead of trying to force these practices into the margins of my days. Richard Rohr writes that that wondering is standing inside the question itself. I am doing a lot of wondering these days.
In the meantime, my sister Beth in New York is having a baby. Beginnings and Endings. Life goes on. This is the first grandchild on my side of the family, which means every one's focus is pointed east. Around here, the "festive season at the Greers'" has begun, as our friend Jerome calls it. In the weeks ahead, we have a startling number of parties to host, beginning with the annual St Cecelia
night. The day after, I will wash a hundred wine glasses and throw out the pumpkins, changing over the house in time for the next round of Christmas parties.
Which, of course, brings us full circle back to the mysterious pumpkin. I have no question how it ended up in my flower bed, for in spite of Matt's dire warnings, every year even the biggest pumpkins I toss in disappear completely. The worms are doing an admirable job. Apparently, the compost that then ended up in the flower bed had a pumpkin seed ready to take root, and so here we are.
"Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?' poet Mary Oliver wrote. In painful, specific ways, we have been forced to look life and death in the face this fall, reconciling our own beginnings and endings. As the festive season begins, we raise our glass once again to the saint of music, celebrating life.
November 14th, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
I get migraines. Frequently.
I am reluctant to admit this, because I am fearful this will jinx any progress I have made on the migraine front. You see, I have been getting migraines since I was 10 years old. Doing the math, that means I have been getting migraines with some regularity for almost 30 years. During one particularly bad 10 year period in my adult life, I could honestly claim to have a migraine about 75% of the time. Now I have migraines about 25% of the time, which, as you can see, is improvement. You don't even have to be in statistics to recognize this analysis.
This is why I am hesitant to come out and even give voice to the migraine problem. My favorite way of dealing with migraines is to ignore them. I have been doing this with some degree of success for decades now. But if I am honest, I have to acknowledge their existence, and how, in little, subtle, underhanded ways, they handicap my life.
Migraines, for me, always come in clusters. I never have an isolated migraine, here today gone tomorrow. Instead it is always, here today gone maybe in 2 weeks. Many clusters I can more or less work through successfully. I take my drugs, I watch my diet like a hawk, I suffer through. And then there are the five alarm headaches.
I had one of those this last week. I had gotten to what I hoped was the end of a stretch of migraines. I was so optimistic about this, in fact, that I had a small glass of wine with dinner, something I would never do in the midst of a cluster. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was just the luck of the game, but I woke up in the night with that old familiar pressure in my head. I thought perhaps that I should take something, but decided to risk it and see if I could sleep it off. At 5:45am when Matt came in to wake me up, I begged for more sleep. "Give me till 6:30," I bargained, thinking that I could still squeeze in my laps at the pool even with this compromised morning schedule. At 6:30 I didn't even negotiate. After all, I was in the middle of a dream. Monkeys had appeared in our backyard and were wreaking havoc. Then lion cubs sprang out of nowhere. I had to see where this dream was going. My cat was curled up next to my head. There was no real conscious thought about the headache pain, just that sleep was my only viable option.
At 8am, I finally crawled out of bed. There would be no swimming. I could barely stumble to the shower.
The day became one of my "Bare Minimum" days.
Sometimes I wonder if these days aren't thrust upon me as a way of slowing me down, forcing me to relinquish my rigid schedule and my ambitious to-do lists. They certainly force me to be creative and resourceful. I teach, usually, and last week also went to class--these being my "bare minimum" tasks for the day. But I don't practice, and make the couch the center of my universe. Last week I read two research articles and a fashion magazine. I ate toast and boiled eggs. I did the dishes and made the bed. If I don't do at least my bare minimum I can quickly spiral downward into an attack of despondency. A few activities to order my day is the compromise, my own bargain with the migraine devil.
I suppose that it is the attitude of compromise, of saying, "OK. So what can I do today?" that, in the end, makes the migraine problem bearable. If I feel like I don't have to lose an entire day to the battle, I can feel some level of control, some feeling of triumph. This fall I am taking a class on motivational theories, which, as I anyone might imagine, is right up my alley. I have a 101 ways to think about motivation; my entire life is some sort of motivational game, which is why, I suspect, I understand so well the brain of my 8-year-old students.
Just this week, one child and I struck up a new compromise on the practicing front. She is (like all my students) expected to do 5 days of practicing a week, but on tough days, on busy days, on low motivation days, on migraine days, she is allowed to have a "short-cut day". This is her own version of my "bare minimum" days, although I like the jaunty name "short-cut day" better. This is a day where she chooses what might be most important to practice, and does only these things. Her only requirement is that she has to indicate on her practice chart if she opted for a "short-cut day" at any point in the week.
Too much of life is presented to us as if it is black or white, when my experience falls squarely in the grey. Truth is "short-cut days" are a reasonable approach to reality and our busy modern lives, and give us options that are not all or nothing. And what I know from my motivational readings, is that the first battle is just getting to the dreaded task at hand. Often times once we are there---in the pool swimming laps, sitting down at the piano bench----we find our rhythm and our resistance melts away.
August 22nd, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
Really, by most standards this is the anti-blog.
Although some of you faithful readers have figured out how to penetrate the system and send me messages (Thank you!), I do recognize that this site lacks, shall we say, some of the more reader-friendly devices that other more sleek blogs possess. Mostly, I am Ok with that, being rather old-fashioned and not sleek myself. It's not just my blog that is less than trendy, I'm not terribly plugged-in any place in my life. My cell phone has never been off "silent" mode, and I treat my home answering machine like a butler who screens my calls, much to the disgust of all my friends and family. Matt regularly accuses me of being the worst electronic flirt in the world. "It is not fun to flirt with you through emails or text messages if you are going to get them a week later," he complains. Indeed, pony express is more my speed.
Recently, my dear husband joined Facebook. He had been threatening to do so for some time, feeling like he needed this tool to help with some of the publicity for his choirs. "I have to be honest about something," he says to me one morning over coffee. "I've gone over to the dark side."
I'm still having none of it. I don't need old high school boyfriends hunting me down reminding me of my past errors in judgement. I don't need one more thing to keep track of every day. I realize that the day may come very soon where this attitude will come back to bite me in the ass, but for now I am standing firm.
However, there is a new feature on this site that I wanted to alert you to. Some time ago a reader in Canada wrote to ask if there couldn't be a way to be contacted through an RSS feed about new posts. I had no idea what she was talking about, being so technologically slow myself. RSS feed? Does this stand for Random Stories Sometimes? It's only taken me about a year to look into this, and just this week my website designer set up this feature.
It works like this:
Click on the "Subscribe" link on the upper right hand corner of this page. This will take you to a scroll page of posts, which allows you to easily forward particularly witty and interesting links to other people, and to easily bookmark the page. Hopefully this will make it that much easier to have ten thousand stars
a regular part of your on-line reading.
You will not get emails alerting you to new posts, unfortunately, that feature was pricey and complicated enough that I will have to wait until my ship comes in. ("Your ship is coming, I know it," Matt occasionally says to me. I think he might be somewhat invested in this possibility and isn't able to give me the most neutral and unbiased assessment of my future.)
So until then, micro-step by micro-step, I'll stumble into the 21st century.
August 8th, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
There is nothing like turning another year older to give one a new perspective on life. Especially when coupled with 5 weeks of limping around like a truly older person. And a comment like this from my new friend the orthopedic surgeon, while looking at X-rays of my knees: "Wow. We don't usually see arthritis like this in a 38-year old."
Reading an old teaching journal of mine this week, I stumbled upon this conversation:
I was teaching Sam, a precocious and funny 7-year old. In passing, I made some comment (there is really no such thing as a passing comment with children--I should have known this) about when I was his age, when Sam interrupted, "Miss Amy, was that when the pictures were black and white?" Before I could answer, his older sister chimed in from the couch where she was waiting quietly for her lesson. "Was there sound on the TV or was it quiet? Did you have radio?" "HOW OLD DO YOU THINK I AM ANYWAY, KIDS?" I asked, alarmed. Sam thinks for a moment, "10?"
This took place at least a decade ago. By their accounts I might be all of 12 these days.
July 25th, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
Life has her own way of slowing me down.
After my bike “spill” earlier in the summer, (this is how Matt likes to refer to it, As if I was a 5-year-old who just got her training wheels off.) my normal frantic pace shifted considerably. It's hard to move fast on crutches. It's even harder to carry a cup of coffee. Whether it was the crutches or the lack of caffeine, the speed of my life slowed down to what felt like a crawl. Or a limp, as the case might be.
I still did plenty, I can assure you. I taught and taught and taught some more---some days as long as 8-10 hours. My students were at first alarmed at my lack of mobility. "My bicycle was hit by a car," I told them, thinking borderline passive voice would seem less threatening to a small child. But I learned quickly this was the wrong choice of words because bike accidents hit home (no pun intended) with children; after all, most of them ride bikes. "WERE YOU ON IT?" one child asked in an alarmed tone.
In addition to my teaching schedule, I still hobbled to the piano bench for multiple performances and for too many rehearsals. For the last five years, July has proven to be an extremely busy performing time around here, because my husband organizes what are known as "Thursday Evening Musicales" every---you guessed it---Thursday evening. These are wonderful evenings, where musicians of all stripes and musical persuasions come and play 10-15 minute sets to benefit a local organization called "Healthcare for the Homeless." The musicales not only earn money for a great cause, they are always fantastic evenings. Musicians in Albuquerque have come to look forward to this concert series as a chance to work with different people, or to play music that they don't normally perform in their regular lives.
But there is always a need for pianists, piano being the universal accompaniment to just about anything. This year I have played for a chamber choir, a tenor, a baritone, a soprano and flute, a soprano and mezzo, a jaw harp (THAT was a new experience. Ever heard a set of Beethoven variations for jaw harp and piano? I doubt it.). I have done a set of piano duets, and next week will do a solo set of PDQ Bach Preludes and Fugues. July has become a great music-making month, but it puts the pressure on the practicing for sure. So while physically I was moving at the pace of a snail, the demands of my work life hadn't really let up. Just to add to the complications, for the first week I had to pedal entirely with my left foot. There is no subtlety with my left foot I can tell you. I gained great insights to the pedaling habits of my 8-year-old students. The pedal is either on or it's off. There is nothing in between.
Keeping up this schedule meant that everything else had to go. It took all the energy I had to get the bare minimum of teaching, practicing and performing done while on crutches. Matt and I discovered quickly how much I do around the house without even knowing I'm doing it, when the cats went 4 days without water and the garden began slowly withering away in the heat. Being on crutches for over 2 weeks put a serious damper on my “The World is My Gym” exercise motto. Although now that I think about it, the world still was my gym, just in an obstacle course kind of way.
In the midst of this mid-summer madness we are sitting outdoors one evening with friends enjoying cocktails. Suddenly, Lora says, "You know I don't have my glasses on, but I think there's an owl in that tree." We look up. Sure enough, on a branch hanging over our yard was a screech owl. We look closer, and pick out not one owl, but a total of four owls, hanging out in the trees overhead. They are intent on something in our yard, which I realize just might be the neighborhood cat, whom I call Pinstripe, busy rustling in the bushes. In fact, Pinstripe is after something, probably a chipmunk. The owls never take their eyes off the chase. We go inside. It's getting both dark and a little creepy out there what with the posse of owls and what is clearly about to be a massacre with Chippy as the victim.
Two days later my neighbor knocks on the door. There is a dead cat between our houses. she tells me. "You know the cats in this neighborhood better than I do," she says, "Can you come see if you recognize it?"
It's Pinstripe, or a cat that could play her double in a movie. Her body is intact, but the look on her face is one of horror and trauma. Could the owls kill a cat? I've heard of hawks killing cats, picking them up and dropping them to their deaths, but a little screech owl? What about four screech owls working together?
We call Animal Control, who comes and takes away the body. I'm sad. Pinstripe was a sweet cat and one that has been coming to visit for years. I didn't know where she lived, but she loved our garden, and did her part in keeping the rodents out of the flower beds. More than once, I saw her catch a mouse in my yard, and she rubbed against my ankles whenever I hung out laundry.
Days go by, and we notice that every evening at dusk, Godiva, our indoor cat, is sitting by the sun-room door staring out the window. It takes us awhile to figure out what she is doing, but then we remember that most evenings Pinstripe would come to that door. The two cats would bang up against the glass hissing aggressively, and then settle down and stare at each other for some time before one of them got bored and wandered off: Pinstripe to another outdoor adventure; Godiva to come find us to curl up for the night.
"It's good to have a worthy adversary," Matt says. "We miss them when they're gone."
In the meantime, I am back on two feet. My friend Jerome calls me "Ms. 5/8," because of the irregular manner of my limp. "Walk in 4/4," my physical therapist reminds me. On my good days, I manage common time, largo as it is. It will be a while still before I am back to the regular pace of my life. As I write this, there is only one official month of summer left around here---my fall schedule begins August 16th. This has become the summer that wasn't---all my plans of hiking and biking, gardening and yoga classes disappearing the minute I took that spill on the bicycle. All I have respectably managed is a great deal of summertime lounging, a pile of books at my side.
Last week I was outside watering, limping from flower bed to flower bed dragging the hose behind me. A woman walks by with her dog. We exchange a few pleasantries and then she says, "You know, these daisies would bloom again if you'd just deadhead them." Nothing like unsolicited advice from a perfect stranger. I explain about my accident, and say, "I'm doing good just to be watering at this point." "Oh," she grunts, "I'll do them for you," and proceeds to deadhead the entire plant. I shake my head, marveling at both the audacity and the generosity of people that walk through our lives.
Inside, Godiva sits at the door, waiting for her friend.
May 16th, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
I have been thinking about geography a great deal lately. Ten years ago (Ten years! Where did it go?) Matt and I moved from Texas to Boston and encountered a whole new set of geographical definitions. "Where are you from?" new acquaintances asked, not quite able to identify the rhythm of my speech. "The Midwest," I responded. "Oh, I'm from the Midwest too. I'm from Ohio," one person told me. Ohio? Ohio isn't in the Midwest. "What would you call Kansas?" I wondered out loud. "The Plains." "And Missouri?" "The South." Wow. Are we going by Civil War divisions here? One person asked if St. Louis was in Virginia. Another thought Kansas City might be in Oklahoma, which only goes to show you that our American musicals are teaching geography more effectively than our schools. At a party someone said, "Hey! I'm from the Midwest. I'm from Buffalo." As in New York? Speechless, my mouth dropped open.
If moving out to the East Coast rearranged my views on geography, moving to New Mexico seven years ago was just as enlightening. Colleagues and friends in Boston overwhelmingly had the same response: Well, you are moving closer to your families. We most certainly did not. Out families live in Missouri. This is still quite a substantial distance. There will be no popping home for dinner or to do laundry. It's too far even for a weekend visit. But after the years of conversations about geography with New Englanders, I was not surprised by this attitude. I knew that Bostonians understanding of everything west of the Hudson was suspect at best.
What was surprising is that my mother had these same distorted views. She thought moving to New Mexico meant that we were moving home. "I am so glad you are moving back," she said repeatedly in our weekly Sunday afternoon conversations. My mother has no excuse for this ignorance. She teaches 4th grade in St. Louis and 4th graders are supposed to learn US geography. But every year she starts her teaching in the Northeast and her class gets bogged down somewhere around Pennsylvania. The 4th graders under her instruction have never made it to the Southwest. Unfortunately, this means Momma has never made it to the Southwest in her comprehension of geography either.
Gently, I tried repeatedly to enlighten her, but she would have none of it. Somewhere deep down inside, she is still a little girl from central Kansas and even though she is living on the far eastern border of Missouri, her world is still orientated from that little Kansas town. "Mmmmmmm...." she said doubtfully in response to my attempts at enlightenment, "it just doesn't seem that far." There are fewer states in between, Momma, that is true. But these states are big ones, full of vast empty spaces.
It's taken all these years, but Momma seems to now understand that the 1000+ miles between us is indeed a fur piece. I have always known with every molecule of my being that this was a foreign, far-away country, for nothing about desert living will ever seem quite like home. I say that and with the next breath will confess that I have learned to love it here, and have no intention of leaving. The patterns of the seasons in this state of enchantment, the spectacular weather we enjoy, the circle of friends that has become our extended family has all become worth more than the promise of a greener life somewhere else. I couldn't easily leave our darling New Mexican cottage, or this funky neighborhood we live in. My garden is spectacular this year, finally brimming with results and glory after the years of sweat and hard work. I have learned the art of gardening in the desert of all places. I shake my head at the thought.
And yet. On some visceral level this will never be home. I know this and have even resigned myself to this truth. Most days I am not even saddened by this thought, having so firmly grown roots where I was planted here. But at the same time, I know where home is: home is New England. Specifically, my heart resides in the cobbled streets of Boston and the villages of the Berkshires and western Massachusetts. The fact that this is not actually the area of the country that I grew up in has nothing to do with it, I've learned. You may or may not have the fortune to ever live in your heart's home. You can build a home somewhere, and that I have done. But it is not the same thing.
I have been thinking about all this lately, because this month Matt and I are going to spend almost two weeks meandering around Boston and New England. In the seven years since we moved, we have never been back. We have talked about it from time to time, but something always prevented us from visiting---the price of the plane ticket, the long travel days required, another compelling obligation somewhere. Underneath all these excuses has been a pretty deeply rooted reluctance on my part as well. Living in Boston was so important to me; I have never felt so at home anywhere. The idea of New England has become almost sacred in my memories. Would I still feel the same after all these years? And if I didn't, would that rob me of something special?
"Amy, I can't see you in turquoise," a friend told me when we announced we were moving to New Mexico. "Matt, can Amy leave Boston?" concerned friends asked him. The fact that I did will always be one of my greatest personal triumphs. The fact I am going back may be another.
"I may not return," I tell friends. Imagining being back in our old neighborhood, walking those streets my feet knew so well makes me weepy and fragile. Home, however we define it, will always be one of the holiest words I know. Thinking about this, I pace the wooden floors of my tiny colorful home, chasing the sunlight from room to room.
May 2nd, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
I have become a woman of indeterminate age.
I know this because of a conversation that occurred with one of my students this semester. Brett and I were talking about an activity that I had assigned for the next performance class: all the students were to bring their iPods and play a song of their choice for the class. This, I had assured them, could be anything: rock, folk, blues, heavy-metal. My only requirement was that they had to give a brief report on the song or the band that consisted of "Five Fun Facts".
The students were psyched about this task, talking for weeks about what music they might bring. "Do you know the Goo-Goo Dolls?" Brett asked me. "Nope," I responded. "But they are a really old band," Brett said. "How old is 'old'?" I quizzed him. "Oh, like the 1990's," he answered. "Not going to be old enough, I'm afraid," I laughed, thinking that I hadn't regularly listened to popular music since college. Brett was silent; I could see him thinking. Finally he blurted out: "Amy, I don't know how old you are, but you aren't that old!"
I don't know how old you are, but you aren't that old...could be my by-line these days. I have suddenly become somewhere between a young hip adult and the age of their parents. Actually, for most of my elementary kids I am exactly the age of their parents, or even in some cases, older. But for Brett, a junior in high school, I am of mysterious age. Old enough, certainly, to be a real adult with a grown-up life and accouterments, but young enough that I still seem relevant to their world. This, as I think about it, is an ideal age, but one that I realize will last about five minutes. Then just as suddenly, I will be simply old and outdated, or like my master's degree and my first GRE score, "expired."
Going back to school only drives this point home. I am easily 15 years older than the youngest graduate students, their bachelor's degrees still hot in their hands. And yet, I am relatively young compared to the next older generation going back to school in pursuit of a career change. Not that this indeterminate age is helping me, for these days the learning curve to being a student is steep. Research isn't conducted like it was 15 years ago, when we still held actual books and bound journals in our sweaty palms. Entering the university library, I find only computer terminals and a Starbucks. I have to negotiate on-line data bases to dig up journal articles, and there are, quite literally, hundreds of different data bases to choose from. It makes my head spin.
I have always used Chicago publication style for citations; now I am being buried alive by the rules and paperclip counting found in my 6th edition APA publication manual (Greer & Greer, 2010; Who Gives a Damn, 2009). For all my writing credentials, I haven't written anything remotely scholarly in over a decade. I feel gypped that I can't get points for self-expression or artistic ideas. No one cares, I am quickly learning. But heaven forbid if my citation comma is in the wrong place.
Deep into my "Quantitative Research in Education" class (which I have renamed "Quantum Physics," because I think it makes me sound smarter) I am learning the art of counting paperclips. Or commas. Or peer-reviewed journal articles, as the case may be. Ever the skeptic, I doubt every one of these studies, because I have already learned that researchers can make any findings suit their hypothesis. I come home from class with my head bursting with unfamiliar terms (casual-comparative research, ethnographic research, moderating variables---this is all made up, I am convinced...), and wonder how much steeper the climb towards this degree could get. I plow my way through completely unreadable feminist theories of psychology, and I begin to suspect that my bullshit meter is simply too sensitive for academia. This is silly minutiae, all of it. It is hard to make myself care.
"You know, I've gone back to school," I explain to a Jonathan when he asked if I can come hear his Friday night gig at a country club. "I don't know if I can get there." He is young and incredulous. This high schooler thinks adulthood means no more school, an age he can't get to it fast enough. "Why would you do that?" he asks me. Matt overhears this conversation from the next room. "Amy is trying for her GED," he calls out. "Oh," Jonathan says innocently, "I don't know what that is, but it sounds really important."
Important or not, I am struggling to keep my head above water. "We're drowning over here," I e-mail a friend after missing our early morning yoga and meditation time. Several hours later I open the door to trip over two life vests outside our sun-room, Patti's good-humored response to my apology. I spent years as a lifeguard; it's time to remember a few survival skills. "Sometimes it's just a matter of swimming fast," Patti reminds me when we talk later that day. "It's good information to realize you can do that."
Swimming I can manage; it's the flailing around in water over my head that is getting me in trouble. Last week I walked up to our neighborhood coffeehouse to buy an emergency bag of coffee for the next morning. The next day it was nowhere to be found, which is less of an indication of the state of my house as it is evidence of my state of mind. Later that week I lost a cordless phone, paging it repeatedly to no avail. I have been cleaning out closets lately on the theory that less clutter in my life would also mean less stress, so it is possible that the bag of coffee and the phone are now both at Goodwill.
At any rate, these days are taking every ounce of the goodwill and humor we can muster. An occasional life vest doesn't hurt either.
February 28th, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
January 24th, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
Last Friday I took the GRE.
This was one of those painful hurdles to jump as part of going back to graduate school. I had taken it once before, about 10 years ago, when I had last flirted with the idea of additional graduate work, but that GRE score was, in the words of my advisor, "Expired." (Apparently, so was my masters degree, which left me speechless. Was it like milk?) While I would like to make the argument that my intelligence hasn't actually changed in the last 10 years, the truth is when faced with the math (or "Quantitative" as the GRE deceptively calls it) questions, I had to admit that yes, I was not as smart.
Or at least as equipped to do even the simplest math equations. As I have explained in the last month to anyone who would listen, it have been 20 years since I have had a math class. That would be 20 years. Not less than or equal to 20 years, but 20 actual certifiable years. There was no way this was going to go well.
Ten years ago when I took the GRE, in addition to the math and verbal sections, there was a logic part to the exam. Surprising myself and everyone who knew me, I earned a perfect score on this portion. But of course, I had a lifetime of juggling hectic schedules and tasks, which was better practice than anything the test prep can design anyway. (If I can only teach M-Th from 3-8pm, and all my lessons are 45 or 60 minutes, and Jack can only come on Tuesdays at 4, but Sophie can come on Th at 5, then when does Marcie take a lesson if she needs to take it before or after Dan's lesson.....) But sometime in the last 10 years the test was rewritten and the logic portion removed in place of two analytical writing sections. This, I can assure you, isn't the same at all. Even with all my writing skills, I don't often use much logic in forming my opinions. So, long story short, my only real ace in the hole was gone.
Over Thanksgiving break I bought one of those GRE test prep books and began studying math. The first time I encountered a question involving slope I almost gave up. Why, I screamed to Matt, would I know anything about slope? Honestly, even in my math days, I was no stellar math student, which is just proof that the so-called evidence that says there is a link between math and music is not the whole story. When I encountered remainders for the first time in 5th grade, I cried. Numbers never made any intuitive sense to me. What I was was a stellar student. I could, and did, figure out how to get an "A" in nearly every class I took. But I never understood much about math and retained even less. In fact, my recurring nightmare as an adult is not that I am naked and on stage, but that it is the first day of school and I am sitting in a math class with another year of difficult equations ahead of me.
Our friend Katie was home from college for winter break. Katie is an engineering student, and a math whiz, and she agreed to tutor me. A typical session went something like this:
Katie: So, slope is y over x. Do you understand what that means?
Katie: OK. Is there anyway you can just memorize this?
It never got better. One practice exam asked me to figure the volume of a sphere and I almost came undone. Complaining later at a holiday party about my GRE woes, I mentioned this to a circle of Sandia engineers. "Four-thirds-pi-r-cubed" they all said simultaneously. "But" why would I know this?" I argued. "Why is this test or these random formulas any measure of my abilities at this point?
They aren't, but in spite of myself, I was fascinated with how the practice questions were written. From an educational point of view, these were brilliant. Although I will never be sure, I don't think the level of the work was higher than high school geometry, but the questions themselves were what I would call third-level questions. In other words, they demanded that you understood about three levels of information before you could even approach what the question was asking. A comparable musical question would be: Given a key signature of 4-flats, write a harmonic minor scale. This is easy if you know anything about music, but if your don't, there is no way to fake this. You must know how to figure major keys, relative minors, and then compute the notes for the scale. I am convinced the math questions were exactly like this, but I lacked even the first level of knowledge needed to begin.
Before Christmas I had a new dream. This time I was taking the GRE, only instead of taking it on the computer, I had to answer the questions with colored pencils. I didn't like the colors assigned to me, so I was arguing with the proctor, only to realize that the exam had already begun and I was wasting my time. I crowded myself onto a table in a loud room and starting reading through the questions (all math of course). I didn't have a clue about how to do any of them. Not a clue. I was up to question 12 when my alarm rang waking me up to another day.
After six weeks of this nonsense, it was time to bite the bullet and just take the damn exam. I didn't know a frightening amount, but I resigned myself that it would be what it would be. I arrived at the testing center at 7:55AM to be met with pages of rules and regulations. It was as if we were entering a maximum security prison. We were searched, our pockets turned inside out. We had to lock up possessions, and weren't allowed water. We had to commit to wearing all the clothes we had on when we entered the room; no removing jackets or sweaters. We were photographed and then led to a computer.
At this point I must leave the narrative to give a few disclosures. In my school days, I was a good test-taker. I naturally did those things they teach you in test-taking seminars, like scanning the test and doing the easiest problems first. I was good at dividing up my time. I didn't have test anxiety and usually tested at whatever level I was generally prepared for. This was all about to change.
First of all, any of those tricks I might have automatically practiced would not be relevant because under a computer-based exam, there was no scanning the questions, answering easy ones first, or going back to difficult problems. You have to answer each question in turn in order to get a new question, and to rub salt in the wound, there would be no returning to questions once you answered them. You have one shot.
I know this going in. I don't like it but I know it. But still, I am pretty confident, if not in my actual abilities, at least in my ability to test at my skill level, or even, on the rare lucky occasion, above it. Entering the exam room, I know what strikes I have against me, but I don't think there are any outside circumstances that will undermine my efforts. I sit down at the computer, and immediately am subjected to a 30-minute non-optional tutorial about how to use the computer. This is only the beginning of the slow drain on my energy and quick wits. I then answer a number of questions about race and background, including several about my "undergraduate institution", which I brilliantly decide doesn't actually mean my undergraduate institution, but rather where I wanted my GRE scores sent. I entered Texas Tech, which makes no sense on any level, but it's too late to change anything.
I race through the two writing sections, (are there extra credit points for speed?) and decide to take a quick break. I sign out, use the restroom and get a drink at the drinking fountain. Re-entering the room, I am struck that it now seems rather warm, but too late. I am stuck with the layers I put on that morning when it was a chilly 30 degrees outside and I had to scrape the car windows. I return to my cubicle, and begin what appears to be a math section with a 45-minute time limit. I was expecting a verbal section next, but OK, I begin.
This sucks. I get a question about derivatives. W.T.F? There is a question about 14! and 15! What's with the exclamation marks? I have no idea. I am quickly running out of time trying to wade through questions that seem nothing like the test prep questions. Where did they find these questions? Where is something about y over x? I memorized that!
My ego and confidence now deflated, I finish the section. "Would you like to proceed to the next section?" the computer asks. Well no, what I'd like to do is go drown myself in a martini, but thinking I have a quick verbal portion to plow through and then I can escape, I answer, "Proceed." My practice verbal tests had typically taken me only 10 minutes. I am growing increasingly more hot and thirsty, but I can handle 10 minutes. Famous last words.
The verbal is hard. I don't know too much of the vocabulary, which shouldn't surprise me given the fact that my vocabulary development mysteriously stopped when I entered the 2nd grade. The reading comprehension passages are long, and due to the large font and the narrow columns on the screen, there are maybe one and a half words per line, making it impossible to follow the thread of the narrative. Besides, they are boring and badly written. I am growing dangerously close to not caring and blindly answering "B" on every question.
I finish, barely with any time to spare, but hey, its over. The computer asks, "Would you like to proceed to the next section?" Well, yes, I think. The next section is scoring, choosing institutions to send your scores, and then leaving. I would very much like to proceed. I hit "Proceed" and lo and behold! I enter another Quantitative section. (That would be math.) What?
And then I remember something I had conveniently chosen to forget. There might be an experimental section that wouldn't be scored, but the tester wouldn't know which section was experimental. Clearly, somewhere along the way, I am being subjected to a math experimental section. The thorn is that I don't know if the previous section was the experimental one, or this one. I actually have to try. I also have to go to the bathroom and my mouth is like sandpaper. And I am really, really hot; my wool sweater is starting to feel like an instrument of torture.
But I can't take a break, because now the clock is running and I have 28 more math problems to solve in the next 45 minutes. Slowly the will to live is leaving me.
I had smugly thought that there weren't circumstances that could cause me to take a bad test. But that was before the too hot room and the wool sweater, the three hours staring at the too large font, the lack of bathroom breaks and the absence of drinking water. My brain is now mush, and I no longer care. I don't care what my score is. I don't care if I can get into graduate school. I am willing to sign off my life and my unborn children. I will work at Starbucks or collect garbage, anything to make the math questions stop coming.
"C." I answer. Stands for Could not care less. I click on "D." Does not give a damn. "A." Actually, any answer would do.
Eventually, three and a half hours after I began, the torture is over. The test is scored; I choose institutions to receive my rather marginal scores. I stagger out, my brain foggy, nauseous from staring at a glowing screen for hours.
I understand that universities need a universal standard in which to assess student candidates, but there has to be a better way. For last Friday is not a fair or an accurate assessment of my intelligence, abilities, or potential success or failure as a student. This was just an exercise in jumping hurdles. High ones. For hour after hour. Wearing a wool sweater and being deprived of drink.
Bring on the next one.
January 10th, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
On Christmas Eve I walked home along the luminaria-lined streets after a service I played in a neighborhood church. Sitting on my doorstep when I arrived was a festive holiday bag. I went inside, opened the card which read, "I found this in a second-hand shop and thought of you." The card was signed by a colleague. I reached into the bag and pulled out a knick-knack. It was one of those awful tchotchkes involving cats and pianos and treble clefs that I usually avoid at all costs. But this particular item was distinct for two reasons--first, because it had a particularly horrendous paint job, and second, because I once owned this very knick-knack. It was made and given to me by a student some years ago. When the student moved away, I gleefully gave it to Goodwill. Now it was back, and sitting on my counter.
Due to the gods of the public school schedule, this year I had the longest winter break in history. By the 18th of December I was having lunches with friends, meeting colleagues for coffee, and attending Christmas services and concerts. I finished my Christmas shopping and spent entire afternoons on the couch with a stack of novels. My mother arrived on Christmas Day for a visit. We had a Boxing Day party with friends, and spent a day in Santa Fe roaming the plaza. There was no snow, but we had freezing temperatures for days, reminding us that winter had snuck in when we weren't looking.
Other things have snuck in as well, for as it turned out, this Christmas has been full of unexpected gifts and guests. It appears that we have a mouse in the kitchen. I say "mouse" ever hopeful that it is only one. Surely this isn't unrealistic given the fact we have two cats who have gone on high alert the last few weeks. Yun-Sun and Godiva now spend hours a day crouched on the kitchen floor staring at the baseboards or under the stove. They even take shifts; one napping while the other stands guard. This mouse must rue the day it chose our house to enter. We think the cats have actually laid eyes on the creature, but Matt and I have only seen evidence of where it has been. This is not a welcomed visitor on any level, for you must understand that I don't have a great history with mice.
One summer, I saw a mouse scamper across the floor of our Fort Worth kitchen and nearly had a mental breakdown. In fact, I moved in with a friend for several days until the problem could be eradicated. Then some years later when we were living in Boston, I was rummaging under the kitchen sink for a rag and stumbled upon a box of rodent poison. “Matt, darling,” I said to my husband, “why do we have mouse poison?” A look of love and earnestness came over his face. “I didn’t want you to know, but one night I saw a mouse.”
Upon questioning, my husband then admitted that he had been living this lie of mouse cohabitation for over a month. He had assured me that he kept this secret out of concern for my well-being, thinking I had enough stress already in my life. I suspected that he kept this secret out of concern for his own well-being, fearful of living with me and my rodent knowledge. The mouse was tiny and rather cute, he reassured me, and he hadn’t seen him in weeks. Considering my past reactions to such visitors, I remained remarkably calm. I didn't start packing my bags and moving out. Instead, we simply named the creature Stuart, and every day put out a large treat of poison for him.
Days passed and Stuart never touched the rat poison. He did, however, eat every crumb of the tortilla chips we mixed in to tempt him, which only proved that Boston city mice really were smarter than country mice. Just to show Stuart that we meant business, any time I was in the apartment I took to shouting randomly in the direction of the kitchen, only really demonstrating that I was still borderline mental when it came to rodent cohabitation.
But that was years ago. This time around I am ever more rational and mature. No more yelling aimlessly at appliances. This time I have two bored, indoor felines who have been in training for years for such excitement. "There is an enemy in the house," I solemnly explain to them. "Time to do your job."
And so they do, spending hour after hour guarding the kitchen. We think this mostly acts as a deterrent to the mouse, as we don't have a lot of faith in the cats ability to successfully hunt and kill anything. "Should we name the critter this time?" Matt asks me, and taunts both me and the mouse by walking around the house singing Somewhere out there....Beneath the pale moonlight....
New Years Eve arrived with a myriad of invitations to dinners, parties and so on. A few days before our friend Patti called. "What are you doing New Years Eve?" "Oh, this and that," I responded. "Can you make me a better offer?" "Well, I might," she answered and began telling me of plans to go snow shoeing on the crest. "It's a full moon, and a blue one at that. There hasn't been a full moon on New Year's since 1971. Afterwards, everyone is having dinner back at my place."
I wasn't alive the last time the stars and moon were so aligned, so it felt like a sign of what I should do. Matt opted to make the rounds of other events, (Divide and conquer, we decided.). On December 30, the Sandias got another 14 inches of snow, so clearly God was siding with the snowshoers. At sunset a group of eight of us drove around the back of the mountains and up past the ski area to the crest. We were the only ones up there. The temperature was in the single digits. I could read a book by the full moon rising behind the mountains. The snow drifts reached my knees. We made our way along the crest trail to the cabin that overlooked the twinkling lights of the city below. It and my real life seemed far away; it was as if I had somehow been transported to the moon itself and was literally viewing my world from a new perspective. Which, I suppose, I was.
We spiral back around our lives and patterns, over and over again, gaining altitude and new perspectives on the same subjects, issues, and attitudes. Gifts come back into our lives, unwelcomed or not, and we can either rejoice over the distance gained or we can blindly settle back into the same old ruts. Gearing up to begin another semester, I have to brace myself against thinking "Here we go again," and expecting that everything---good or bad--will be the same. In the next few months, I have my usual daunting roster of students, recitals to prepare for, deadlines to meet. I am taking six graduate hours in Ed. Psych. I have workshops to give this spring, and other professional obligations to attend to. I've been here before, I can all too easily find myself thinking. It's better not to drag the baggage of the past into a new year, but rather, to expect that any day could bring a surprise---an ironic gift left on my doorstep, a curious visitor scampering through the kitchen, a new way of seeing my world and my life. It's all new.
In the meantime, there is the tchotchke to make peace with once and for all. "Its like a boomerang," Lora said when I told her the story. "Maybe you could send it back home with your mother. If you get it out of the time zone do you think you're safe?"
Maybe, although I'm tempted this time to hang onto it, just for the reminder. One way or another, we will continue to revisit the stories of our lives, while at the same time we step forward into new territory with every hour, and every day, and every year. This paradox is a good one to hang onto as we enter a new semester and a new decade, fresh and familiar all at once.
December 20th, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
This morning I was reading a book about gardening and Zen meditation entitled Gardening at the Dragon's Gate by Wendy Johnson. In it, the author was describing the conflict between practicing zazen, or seated meditation, from 4-6AM every day, with the practical realities of life on the farm---the call of the cows needing to be milked first thing in the morning, the babies still sleeping in their cribs who wake up and need to be fed and cared for. "How do grown-ups practice Zen?" she writes, repeating a question asked by a fellow Zen student.
I understand this conflict of competing attentions and pulls all too well. Ideally, my life would look something like this: I would get up while it was still dark, meditate and do yoga for an hour, read and write for another hour or two, practice for several hours, and then start my teaching day. At the other end of my work day, I would have energy and attention to cook a real dinner with my husband, and eat it by candlelight. I would spend more time in meditation and yoga before going to bed. Let me assure you, however, that my days look nothing like this. While I am convinced that such a disciplined ritualized schedule would be transformative to my work and my soul, real life in the waning days of 2009 does nothing to help me maintain such practices. I manage some of this, some days, but unless I am going to leave my little noisy corner of the world and move to a deserted island somewhere I have no hope of maintaining this for the long haul.
So, to rephrase a question, how do grown-ups practice their art? How do we find and follow the spiritual threads of our work? How do we do better than a merely perfunctory attempt at juggling the many roles and obligations that are required of us on a daily basis? These are questions I struggle with hourly, as I find myself living squarely between the pragmatic and the ideal, the messy complicated reality of my life and the sacred, holy space where my art and my spirit intertwine.
For whatever reason, these sorts of questions appear especially pronounced this time of year. A cursory glance at past journals reveals that this is always the case. Somehow, I find myself vacillating between wanting to drown myself in the festivities and spirit of the holidays, and wanting to renounce this world and its material pulls and to go live an austere life far away from the tinsel and glitter that is otherwise threatening to bury me alive. Of course, I recognize that any honest living is always a dance between this world and the next, between the messiness of our daily routines and obligations and a fierce longing for something bigger and grander and more holy than the sparkles and glamour of the season. How do we practice our art and feed our souls in such a place of tension? How do we dance on the line between living completely in our current lives and honoring practices that support our spiritual ones?
These are the questions of my soul as I go about the tasks that make up my days. The fact that this conflict of interest is happening just when I can hardly force myself to work given all the distractions of the season proves once again that someone in charge has a sense of humor. I'm finishing the last lessons of the semester, so ready for a three-week break I can almost taste it. Every lesson during this last week is a test of will power, as I call upon every ounce of patience and adult behavior within me. It's all I can do not to just cancel them all, and abandon myself to the sheer joy of vacation days. But instead of giving into the temptation of succumbing completely to the chocolate in my kitchen and the pile of novels on my coffee table, I practice the art of discipline as the days get shorter and the year winds down to an end. I clean my house and go to the grocery store, trying to keep up with tasks that keep the household running and that also, strangely enough, anchor me firmly to my world. I stand in outrageously long lines at the post office, waiting to mail a pile of Christmas cards. I read through new music, making lists of repertoire for my students. I study for the GRE, attempting to learn the math I happily, purposefully, forgot some 20 years ago. I make my way through piles of books and journals, determined to make a dent in the backlog of reading that has collected in the past few months. I make soup and roast a pan of chicken thighs, small acts of healthy cooking in a month otherwise completely taken over by sugar consumption. I practice, learning a Bach suite and other music for several upcoming recitals. I go to yoga classes, stretching my body and mind into unfamiliar shapes. All the while, I wrestle with metaphysical questions of existence and choices, listening for the voices of truth within the clamor of noise on my time and attention. "How do grown-ups practice Zen?" Johnson was asked. "How do grownups practice Christmas?" I ask, and practice sitting quietly, listening for the answer.
November 15th, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
I think my biggest problem these days is that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, I still think it is about July 15.
This might explain my reluctance to embrace the season. It also might help explain how easy it has been to deceive myself into not acknowledging that I am teaching more students than ever, five days a week, and that often I find myself in a two or three week stretch without a single day off. If my brain still thinks it is mid-July, than clearly I am living in a parallel universe.
Because several weeks ago it snowed. Yes, that's right: it snowed. As in big fluffy white flakes being dropped from the sky and sticking to the ground, causing one adult student to call from the highway to cancel her lesson and head back home. While I have no doubt this was not the first time New Mexico had seen snow before Halloween, it was the first time since we moved here that I have seen snow before Halloween. Indeed, last Thanksgiving Lora and I made one of many attempts at La Luz, something we would have never considered if there had been any snow on the mountain. For sure, this storm was odd.
In fact, I had just picked up Matt from the airport when the snow started coming down. He had been in upstate New York all week, where the temperatures were happily settled in the 50's. Ironically, he just missed getting delayed in Buffalo because of snow in Albuquerque.
But since my internal clock is convinced that it is July, I am having a hard time adjusting to most things this season, the snow being just one. Although I am generally on top of things and thinking far ahead, things like my fall studio recital are not just sneaking up on me, there are in danger of sprinting wildly past me if I don't wake up. I just this week realized that it is next weekend that I am to do a pedagogy workshop at the NM state convention, and play on Matt's Composers 101: Copland concert (aka: Copland for Dummies). On this performance, I am accompanying a singer doing several American folk songs, playing two of the four hands on The Promise of Living, and playing the Piano Variations. I think I am in fine shape on all of the above if I could just wrap my mind around the fact that all this takes place next weekend instead of several months away. Last night I woke up with a start, panicked, realizing that I had no real time to waste and that I had to get in performance mode soon. If it isn't July, then I have some serious mental and emotional catching up to do to get in the game.
So, while I have lagged behind in many ways, for months now I have been absolutely convinced that the time change happened this year on October 25, the Saturday night after we returned from our annual Taos getaway. The time change in the fall is an occasion to be marked and reason to celebrate, as far as I am concerned. We look forward to that extra hour in bed for months. It wasn't until 7pm on Saturday night the 24th, while talking to my mother, that my mistake was pointed out to me. I almost went to bed then, just to protest. In my defense, both of my calendars---not one but two--show the European time change, which apparently did indeed take place on October 25. While we might live in a global economy I don't really need that information, especially when it is likely only to confuse me.
I am not the only one confused. My garden, which had seen the most glorious fall due to the unseasonable warm weather, now stands limp and despondent. The cabbage roses are wilted and pitiful, the cosmos shriveled up out of fear. Even the courageous irises, stubbornly blooming in hope the last month, are now painful to behold. It's time for all of us to come to terms with the season: tulip and daffodil bulbs need to be planted, it's time to rake the millions of leaves on the ground, time to buy cranberries and yams, and remind ourselves how to cozy up for the winter to come.
October 11th, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
Today is pie day around here, which has become a deeply held September tradition in the Greer household. The New Mexico state fair is under way, and the Methodist churches in town have a infamous "Pie Cafe". For months, good Methodists around Albuquerque bake pies and freeze them to be sold at the Pie Cafe, and every Methodist church staff takes a shift or two running the cafe. Today is Matt's shift, which means that today is pie day. He will bring home pie not only for the two of us, but for my long-standing Monday night student, who happens to be the daughter of some of our best friends. Celia's dad and Matt spend most every Monday night having a "Man Date" (which is mostly an excuse to sit in the backyard and drink wine), while Celia and I have our lesson. Tonight the lesson will end with pie. We look forward to this every year. Celia is a senior, so sadly this will be our last pie day together. But in one form or another, pie day will surely go on, some other lucky Monday evening student getting the perk next September.
It is rituals like these that keep our lives ticking along. As I write this we are already knee-deep in another fall semester. Another fall semester, I think, and almost weep. It's not because I find that depressing. Quite the contrary, I love fall and all its seasonal gifts: big pumpkins to pile by my doorway; the changing leaves that around here include the most joyful color of yellow; the shorter, crisper days and cool nights where an extra blanket on the bed starts to seem like a good idea; pots of soup simmering on the stove; the smell of green chile roasting all over New Mexico; our annual October get-away to Taos. No, fall doesn't make me blue, but I feel bittersweet about the idea that yet another school year is here. This will be our seventh fall in Albuquerque and I have never lived anywhere so long in my life. The years and seasons are starting to run together, which frightens me. I am afraid at this rate I will wake up one day and find myself 80. "I still feel 16 inside," my grandmother used to say and shake her head. I am starting to understand this.
Indeed, just this morning I was at the grocery store where I saw the first pumpkins for sale. Back at home I remarked to Matt, "So this weekend we have got to get all our fall stuff: pumpkins, green chile, and pansies." (Matt responded, "Excuse me. Pansies?") Participating the rituals of putting up green chile, planting pansies, and filling my courtyard with pumpkins makes me look forward to the weekend, which is otherwise crammed full of performance classes. We are quickly approaching the first fall competitions, students recitals, state conventions. If I blink I might miss something.
This fall is especially significant because I am going back to school. I hesitate to write that sentence, because I am not yet sure what that will mean long-term. At this point it is all an exploration, but I am taking a graduate course in Educational Psychology with my eye on an advanced degree. (Hmmm...."Ph.D" has a nice ring to it, don't you think?) While this might seem a strange detour in my professional life, it makes perfect sense if you know me well. What I have long cared about in teaching was never simply the notes on the page, but the transformation of human potential that can happen for both the student and the teacher through the learning and teaching processes. I am not looking to get out of music, and in fact have the freedom of knowing that if my life looks exactly like it does now at the end of this possible degree, that would be just fine. However, I am interested in exploring further the psychology of what it means to teach and to learn, and to think about this subject specifically under the umbrella of the private music lesson. More and more, I realize that we private studio teachers are very powerful creatures. We work individually with a students, often for years, with frequently very little thought about how strong our influence might be. We are in a strange position of being "experts" at our subjects, and completely untrained in the art of teaching itself. This makes for a dangerous combination, as anyone who as ever suffered under a brilliant but ego-driven teacher can tell you. Examining this work from an Ed. Psych. angle is different than straight piano pedagogy, because it isn't driven by the technicalities or the body of pedagogical literature of our instrument. It may be uncharted territory to link the art of teaching and the psychology of learning with the private music lesson, and at the moment it feels like a thrilling journey to begin.
But deciding to actually jump in and do this, has been a long time coming. After all, I rather like my life as it is, and taking even one three-hour course this semester has turned it upside down. Besides, I am one of those people whose recurring nightmare is not that I am on stage naked, but that it is the first day of school. I don't love school, and never have. It comes easy enough for me, that's not the issue. I just don't like having someone else dictate my learning process, even for a few months. So going back to school is going to take some adjustments; I fully expect there will be some growing pains along the way, but underneath it all, I'm excited to begin this adventure.
In the grand scheme of things, going back to school is just one more marker of the season. I hung my wreath of red chile peppers on the front window and made my first pot of soup last Saturday night. The Boston Red Sox have made the playoffs, which means the neighborhood bird is now "scarfed" with a jaunty Red Sox cap. My friend and musical colleague Jerome Jim appeared this week on the NPR show Native American Calling , where he was interviewed and excerpts were played from our new CD. Like any self-conscious musician, I hated every second of my playing, which was recorded several years ago and seemed on this recent hearing to fall several yards short of my intentions. I feel like a different pianist today than I did last week, much less two years ago. I cringe at all my shortcomings, but hearing them (however painful) is yet another marker---this time of my tangible growth as a musician. My favorite part of the interview was when Jerome said that I "terrified" him the first time we met, evidently because I was all business, no nonsense and knew my stuff. I think that's all part of the protective armor professional pianists put on when faced with another possible collaborator. I don't know yet if I am going to invest in this, we think to ourselves, I'll decide after we've worked together a bit. This could be just another gig, or it could turn into something wonderful. Or my aloofness very well might be due to the fact that he had called ahead of our first rehearsal and asked if he could bring his two chihuahua puppies. Uh, NO! Lucky for me, our work together has become one of the great musical collaborations of my professional life. But I wonder if I could cultivate this characteristic of terrorizing others a little more. It would be helpful to be able to put the fear of God in my students from time to time, something I sadly am completely unable to do. Especially this month, as we head toward Halloween, not to mention our fall studio recital, terrorizing might just come in handy.
In the meantime, my best friend Lora has put an offer on a house a mere 12-minute walk from my corner. Although this is farther than the current 2-minute walk between houses we now enjoy, it's close enough to continue to share wardrobes, and just far enough to increase my daily exercise minutes just a bit. "There's a lot you are going to be able to do with this yard," she tells me when we spoke this morning. Somehow I have become the resident gardener among my friends. (In fact, just yesterday Jerome randomly remarked, "If Lora, you and I were stranded on a desert island, this is what would happen. You would grow the food, I would cook the food, and Lora would complain about the food." Yeah, that's about right on all counts.) At the moment, my garden is aflame with scarlet autumn sage and dozens of roses. Even a few courageous irises have dared to bloom in our Indian Summer. The mums are on their second round of buds, and the cosmos are in full adorable glory. (Is there anything in the world more cheerful than cosmos?) It's a short run of flowers now; the first frost will come anytime. I'm hedging bets about when I'll have to bring in the dozen huge geraniums that need to winter in the sun-room. Blink and you might miss something.
August 23rd, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
Don't tell my mother, but I have started hiring a housekeeper.
I am embarrassed to admit this, thanks to my mid-western upbringing which frowns on such luxuries. It does seem like a luxury; after all, I work from home. One would think that I would be able to keep my house clean. But I can't -- not even close -- and I have finally accepted this truth. Either I spend every non-working minute cleaning house, or I get some help. Finally, ("It's about time!" my husband said) I have resorted to the latter.
I still have not completely gone over to the dark side. Ellen comes once every two or three weeks and gives me a couple of hard hours cleaning the kitchen and the bathroom. I do the rest. Truthfully, I can't afford to have more help than that, and most of the time I manage fairly well. Although I say that rather sheepishly, as the rug under my feet needs seriously vacuuming for it has collected a good week's worth of crud--not to mention the shavings from the pencil sharpener that a kid dumped on it on Friday. Talking this housekeeping thing over with my friend Lora, I am reminded that Lora lives alone, is hardly there, and rarely cooks, which makes cleaning her house a snap. On the other hand, I live with a "closeted-neat person" ("It's time to let that neat guy out of the closet," I frequently grumble to Matt.) and I have a serious amount of traffic in my sweet little 1250 square-foot cottage. Just to prove my point, I counted the number of visitors that came into my house last week. It was 91. Yeah, that would be 91. Let's say that just 20% of these people use the bathroom, and you see why Ellen has her work cut out for her. Last week nearly a hundred people were in my house (and this would be a week without one of our frequent music parties/receptions--last November we had four of those, including the annual St Cecelia party , which alone is 100 people easy.) AND I worked some 8-12 hours a day. This is my dilemma.
But in spite of all this, I still am in conflict about hiring Ellen, sensible, no-nonsense female genes run strong in my family. The branches of my family tree are full of women who kept immaculate houses, cooked dinner every night, and raised lots of children. I never saw my maternal grandmother less than perfectly put together: hair in place, jewelry on, clothes ironed and missing no buttons. Her house could pass a white glove test. She owned knick-knacks, decorated at Christmastime, and always had fresh towels.
My paternal grandmother lived most of her life in an old farmhouse, which possessed somewhat less than the modern standard of technology. We worry when we are without high-speed Internet; she didn't have indoor plumbing until she was 40. While her house was a delightfully messy assortment of projects: she planted acres and acres of gardens, canned enough vegetables every summer to survive any emergency, sewed her own clothes, and was easily the best cook in my family. My favorite childhood memories of holidays are in that rambling white farmhouse, waking up to the smell of a turkey roasting all night in the wood stove she still used in her kitchen. It's daunting, however, to imagine living up to Grandma's domestic skills; I, who have never grown a vegetable, let alone canned one.
Although fully equipped with modern appliances, my mother was also no slouch in the domestic department. She raised six children. She never opened an empty refrigerator at 9pm and declared that we were ordering pizza. Her plants were always watered. She never sent her laundry out just because she was too occupied with reading Haiku poetry to do it herself. The babies always napped at the same hour. We children went to bed every night by eight o'clock with our piano practicing done. She didn't do yoga or see an acupuncturist. She even taught Sunday School. In all her years of teaching school, she has never called in sick. Momma doesn't have a massage therapist or a herbalist. She has no weakness for fine leather and has never needed shoe therapy. Neither my mother nor any of the other matriarchal figures in my family needed two pots of coffee in the morning to counter the effect of a late dinner and a bottle of wine. These women didn't drink wine. Good grief, they didn't even drink coffee.
In spite of these stalwart genes, I won't cook dinner tonight. Truth be told, I haven't cooked in weeks.
The irony is that there is every evidence that there are active domestic genes winding around my double helix. I garden. I read cookbooks and M.F.K Fisher. I knit. I have a sun-room full of geraniums . But there are holes in my domesticity: I have never ironed my husband's shirts. I couldn't roast a chicken if my life depended upon it. I pay someone else to hem my skirts. ("Why didn't you do it yourself?" Because I can't, Momma.) I forget to clean my kitchen. In fact, it only recently came to my attention that some people set aside time to clean their kitchens, and don't just assume that it is clean enough if the dishes are done.
Instead of cleaning the kitchen, this week I have:
spent 4 hours in the recording studio with a singer
taught 27 piano lessons
answered countless e-mails and phone messages
finished a column for a music journal
gone on several walks
read Billy Collins' new book of poetry
practiced God-only-knows how many hours
listen to a recording of Angela Hewitt playing Bach
held Downward-Facing-Dog until I turned purple.
I have a hard time justifying Ellen cleaning my bathroom so that I can have more time to practice. I have a million and one good reasons to need some help around here, but that doesn't mean I have made peace with the voices in my head that say I---childless and working from home as I do----ought to be able to manage it all.
Sometimes I want different examples, different mentors, different voices in my head. I am searching for the crazy aunt who ran off to Turkey with a lover and who wrote books. I want a cousin who knits not only gorgeous scarves but gorgeous melodies. I want to find the distant grandmother who didn't have kids until she was 40 because she was too busy riding horseback on beaches in the Bahamas. I want to know someone like the sister of a friend, who once left a note for her husband: "Gone to Paris. Took the kids." I want to know that she kept her hair long after the age of 30, made marinara sauce on a single burner, and sang opera arias while she cooked in a garret apartment. I want to know women who disobeyed the rules, who were not well-behaved, who didn't care about their husbands missing buttons. Whatever domesticity, whatever womanhood I may manage, my version will be more messy than the examples I grew up with.
But thanks to Ellen this morning, my kitchen is, for the moment, spotless---or would be, if I hadn't thrown my empty lunch dishes in the sink. As I write this, there are three pairs of shoes lying in the living room; if I don't do laundry soon we may have to actually go buy new clothes to wear; I have no idea what might be for dinner. On top of it all, I just had another birthday.
I think growing older has turned up the volume in my head. Now that I am firmly in my mid-to-late 30's (Matt lovingly puts the emphasis on the "late" part of that phrase, but that's not fair, or entirely accurate.), there is no question that I am now an adult. Whether or not I have accepted or approved of it, I am living some version of what it means to be a woman. I almost shudder to think of it, but this--dirty kitchen and all--may be it.
July 5th, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
It's a good thing that I am not overly dependent upon technology, because at the moment we have a dead television, a dead cell phone, a dead laptop, a 20-year car hobbling along on its last leg, and a dead metronome. This may be the universe's way of mocking me for not keeping up, although honestly, only the latter was a real problem this week; it's hard to be a piano teacher without a functioning metronome. But all of these broken machines serve to punch holes into the assumed routines and patterns of our days, making us think more creatively about how to share our one functioning laptop, causing us to read or talk in the evenings instead of automatically putting in a movie, forcing us to think twice before jumping into our car on some avoidable errand.
This is not a bad thing, to rethink patterns and routines, and summertime seems a ripe season to do so. Schedules and habits are already turned upside down this time of year: I teach at random times throughout the day, instead of the blocks of after-school hours. I fall out of bed with the first light---this morning Lora and I were "scarfing" our neighborhood bird at 5am (Actually "grooming" the bird would be more accurate, as we were preparing the bird for a lovely summer wedding, complete with a top hat and white tie, with a smaller plaster roadrunner "bride" to be put at his feet in a few days---brides are always late for their weddings, we reason.). After our stealthy costuming we went hiking for a few hours in the foothills, but even at such an early hour it was light, the sun bursting over the Sandia mountains by the time we headed back to the car. Instead of teaching through the early evening hours, summer finds me outside at dusk: weeding, watering, deadheading spent yellow marigolds and burgundy petunias. This is my unwinding time every day, happily puttering in the garden, after which Matt meets me with a Campari and soda and we linger in the yard. I have filled a half-dozen bird feeders, making our property a virtual aviary. One feeder I hung just inches outside the study window. Godiva spends hours and hours every day watching the birds with her nose pressed against the glass, guarding the house from any feathered invasion. The Adirondack chairs have recently gotten a new coat of paint: the peeling fire-engine red on two chairs has been replaced with different shades of deep rich purple. Adirondack chairs, with their many slots and edges, are a pain to paint. I resorted to what I referred to as my "Zen painting time" at 5:30 in the morning to get them finished, trusting that during the 30-minutes I allotted for the job that I would be too asleep to notice how much I hated this task. But there is nothing like an hour in an Adirondack chair with a drink in hand to assure you that all is right in the world; even the neighborhood stray cat that I have taken to calling "Pinstripe" agrees, often joining us in the evenings to roll around in the thyme patch.
I love this shifting of tired habits that take place in these long days. Although I have never had the luxury of summering in Maine or on the Cape, there is no question that life tastes different during these months. I still teach a lot, requiring students to take a minimum number of lessons during June and July in order to retain their spots in the studio in the fall. This summer I have already played two big concerts in a two-week span, requiring hours of practicing and rehearsing. One recital included the Franck violin sonata (transcribed for flute) with my musical buddy, Jerome. This piece is my vote for one of the most transformative pieces in Western music, encompassing every human emotion in its four movements. The first movement is simultaneously peaceful and anxious, a dreamlike calm with an undercurrent of restlessness. The second movement rips open in anger, passion and fierceness, only to break down several times with a stirring lyrical melody, heart-wrenching in its beauty. The third movement is the embodiment of desperate, deep sadness and mourning, colored with a passionate outburst of drama. And the final moment seems to me to encapsulate the survival and triumph of all humanity. It is a canon between the piano and the soloist and the tune starts on an upbeat; beginning this movement feels like joining in a universal triumphant march already taking place under the surface of the entire work. This movement is deep contentment, peace and happiness, a resolution of all the upheaval of the previous four movements. Working on this piece I was reminded what an honor and privilege it is to be able to play music like this. To have this kind of sweep of humanity and emotions as part of my life and my days, my work and my play, is both humbling and thrilling at the same time.
But I was so buried in work that I woke up a couple of weeks ago to realize that it was just then officially summer, the solstice taking place that very day. This surprised me greatly, for in my mind, we must surely be halfway through the summer months. We've had a record cool June, only to be hit by an early monsoon season giving us muggy days and low clouds breaking into sudden violent thunderstorms at a moment's notice. Already I am thinking about fall schedules and planning music for next semester's recital, and in just a few weeks I will be finished teaching summer lessons. There's been an increase in break-ins in the city in the last month, fueled by desperate people in a bad economy. But in spite of this nagging worry, summer brings a measure of quiet and calm, space and peace. Tonight will be an al fresco dinner with friends, a bottle of champagne and a martini glasses full of chocolate mousse already chilling in the fridge. These seasonal joys disappear in a flash: these long days of sunshine, these evenings spent outside under the stars. Although its been a great, successful summer already, I can't help reminding myself to stop and really attend to the details of these pleasures, for so quickly they will be gone.
Actually, this year our summer ends in one last hurrah. Matt has a gig in Italy the first week of August. I love saying that: Matt has a gig in Italy....He is helping to prepare a choir for a festival taking place there, and so the end of July has us heading to Rome, to the eastern coast just above the boot heel, and then to Florence for a whirlwind two and a half week trip. I have no duties while in Italy, and plan to spend my time wandering from café to café drinking cappuccinos and wine and looking at art. I can't wait.
Riding home recently from picking up our weekly box of produce from Los Poblanos, our farmers co-op, I was pedaling along slowly with two bags of vegetables and fruit when from behind me came a guy on another bike. "Carrying beets?" he asked as he eyed my baskets. "Now that's a Nob Hill pick-up line if I have ever heard one," said Lora when I reported the incident. "Only here would you have that kind of encounter with a stranger." It's true; I forget how unusual my little neighborhood is. Here it isn't that startling to not have a working television (indeed it has recently come to my attention that I have a huge percentage of students who have televisions but no cable, basically indicating there is little to no TV-watching taking place in many of my students' households. Maybe this is why these families and I are such kindred spirits.). Recently I went up to our neighborhood Flying Star to spend a much needed hour with a pen and a stack of blank paper. I was at the counter ordering iced tea when I realized that in switching bags I had left my wallet at home. "Never mind," I said, "I forgot my wallet. Let me run home and get it." "You only want iced tea?" the girl behind the counter asked, "Don't worry about it. Here you go," she said and handed me a complimentary glass. "We'll catch you next time." Later, sitting in a booth by the window, I overheard two guys talking behind me, "How many cow bells do you have?" one asked the other. How many cow bells do you have? I almost laughed out loud. Only here would this conversation even be somewhat normal.
After all, dressing a bird hardly seems strange on our eclectic streets. Indeed, at this moment, around the corner sits a funny-looking creature, dressed up like a groom, patiently waiting for his roadrunner bride.
June 21st, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
I am not exactly what you would call "cutting edge" when it comes to using technology. My husband and I have a long established pattern: he brings some form of new technology into our house without consulting me; I eye it suspiciously for weeks, before generally allowing it to slowly seep into our lives, mostly without my active participation. Often I am won over; sometimes not. I am afraid I am one of those people that has to remind herself to check her cell phone and see if anyone has called, sometimes realizing after several days that I am not even sure where my cell phone might be. This drives all my friends crazy. "The world might fall in and we wouldn't be able to get a hold of you," says one friend disgustedly. And it's true. Case in point: I went a good 10 days before I caught a reference to the recent airplane crash. This isn't terribly surprising, given that I see only the Sunday edition of The New York Times and never watch television. I'm no better at answering the home phone, considering the answering machine to be my personal butler who screens my calls. In fact, I don't even blink when it rings, causing guests sometimes to exclaim in alarm, "Amy, your phone is ringing!"
But I remain skeptical of all those gadgets that allow us to communicate with one another immediately. I think that they are fooling us into thinking we are more important than we actually are. I can't think of a single time someone really needed to contact me at a moment's notice, although we invent at least 25 of these circumstances every day. "What if you need to get in touch with your students at the last minute?" one friend asked me, trying to make an argument why my life would be better if I would just join Facebook. "Kids are always on Facebook, you could get a hold of them quickly that way."
I can't even begin to describe the problems I see in that theory. First of all, chances are that if I have a last minute "emergency" in my teaching life, then I haven't been doing my job well in their lessons. If I did my job, I shouldn't have to check in a dozen times during the week. I'm supposed to teach students not to need me, not to become completely dependent. What happened to that old proverb of teaching a man to fish?
Secondly, I don't want them to think even for one minute that I am available to them 24/7. I teach piano, for goodness sake; I am not a brain surgeon. I question seriously whether there are ever piano "emergencies." Given that I work from home, I have too few boundaries as it is. I can't have needy students on top of it all. My life (and my home) is already consumed with my teaching. If I give them much more of myself, my students might as well move in.
Finally, if there ever was a last minute thing I needed to communicate to a student, I can't imagine that the most efficient method to do so still isn't picking up the telephone. ("I'm surprised you don't advocate pony express," my friend said sarcastically.)
It may be important at this point to make a distinction between doing something worthwhile in the world, and doing something that involves real life emergencies. I absolutely believe that the arts mend people's lives and souls in real and tangible ways. I also believe strongly that there are very few "GET AMY!" moments in my work. The gift of music is that there are no emergencies; no one dies; no one is bleeding from the head. Sometimes we lose sight of this.
I think there is a great temptation with all of these communication devices to think that because we can be reached at a moment's notice, we therefore are important enough to need to be reached at a moment's notice. We have a default mode of having these gadgets at our side all the time. Although perhaps it is a radical idea, I would like to suggest that because I am important, I deserve to have a life that isn't attached at all times to a cell phone, a laptop, or a BlackBerry. And not only that, maybe the people I am with at any given time deserve the same attention from me. My students, friends, and family should be valued enough to have my non-electronic presence when we are together.
But the truth is these lines are getting harder and harder to draw. We hardly think it is rude anymore when someone takes a call or sends a text message in our presence. On the other hand, we are quite put out when people don't respond to our email or text messages within minutes. When did the rules change?
I have no doubt that from time to time Matt will sneak in new technology into my life, and I will huff and puff, and then resign myself to whatever magic it will bring me. But I'm trying not to lose sight of good old courtesies and rules of relationships that demand, quite simply, that the person I am with deserves my complete attention. I want dinners without the interruption of taking phone calls or reading text messages. I need evenings spent with a book and a glass of wine, not slaving over returning e-mail. I guard carefully those days every week when I don't check my phone or e-mail, giving the constant chatter that otherwise makes up my life time to quiet. I am not giving up my vacations to check voice mail. I refuse to hand over the keys to my autonomy to the gods of modern instant communication.
So I will probably miss a great deal. I will miss out on friends I could rediscover on Facebook. No doubt I will be last to learn of anything important. The world will have to miss out on hourly Twitter reports of what I am doing each minute of every day. It is bad enough that I write a blog.
We have covered the yellow walls of our sun-room with framed New Yorker covers. This collection began years ago when I, tired of storing ten years of magazines, told Matt they had to go. He whined, "But I love some of these covers." "Fine," I said, "we'll hang them up. But the magazines have to go." What started as twelve beloved covers now has become nearly 50. We can track not only the price increases over the years, we can also trace significant moments in history captured in cover art. There is the one after Princess Diana died, depicting a Buckingham Palace guard with a tear running down his face; or the many 9/11 anniversary covers, haunting with their drawings of New York without the World Trade Center; or the issue after Hurricane Katrina, where a lone saxophonist stands above a river of water. We already have a series of Obama covers gracing our walls, and more covers by the wonderful French artist Sempé than we can count. Matt has a favorite that he says reminds him of me. It is a beach scene with a crowd of people, each engaged in some form of technology. Several men are striding down the sand, talking into cell phones; nearby a woman is working on her laptop. In the middle of the illustration stands a little girl holding a sea shell up to her ear, listening intently. "That's my girl," Matt says.
It's true. Half the time I don't even know where my cell phone is. The world may be coming down around me, but I'll be the one holding a sea shell.
May 24th, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
In case anyone might think that my life is all music and bubbles and kittens, it is past time that I come clean. Most of my life is the opposite of glamorous. Instead it is just like every working musician, which means it is mostly hard work. Strangers immediately have some other idea entirely when they ask what I do and I tell them that I am a pianist. "Wow!" they inevitably exclaim. "Are you, like, a concert pianist?" Does this mean, do I play concerts? If so, then yes, sure. "Do you play with the symphony?" is often the next question. I have played with the symphony, and even have an upcoming performance with the New Mexico Symphony wind players doing the Poulenc sextet for a house musicale fundraiser. But it's not my normal gig, and even if it was, any symphony player will tell you it's not all encores and bouquets of roses. True, it's also not digging ditches, but in general, symphony gigs and other performances included, it is safe to say that my life is not particularly sparkly.
Case in point: We live in an old house with constant need of repairs. Our most regular visitor is the plumber, who must come at least once a month. (Small house, with one bathroom. If there is a problem, it is quickly an emergency.) Years ago, our cats took at early, immediate dislike to plumbers, going into hiding the minute they hear a plumber drive down the street. This is strange to me, as the cats have no choice but to become friendly with the idea that this house has lots of daily guests. Nevertheless, plumbers are a different breed entirely in their eyes. We developed a problem with the bathroom sink one weekend last month: it went from behaving fine to becoming sluggish and basically not draining at all. This was suspicious on lots of levels: first of all because the problem happened suddenly without the normal gradual buildup, and secondly because Friday night I had a bustling performance class with ten wild elementary-school students. No doubt, we decided, one of them put a foreign object in the sink. Monday afternoon the plumbers came, our latest favorites consisting of a guy who looks about 12 and his chubby sidekick. "Hey guys," I greeted them. "Good to see you." They "blasted" the foreign object through the pipes (Their word, not mine, but the use of the word "blasted" convinces me of the plumber's level of maturity). As the chubby sidekick was writing my bill, the 12 year-old asks me, cell phone in hand where he is clearly in the middle of writing a text message, "Hey! Do you know how to spell 'gorgeous'?" "You are talking about me, right?" I shot back as I handed over my credit card. "As in, this lady is gorgeous." He looked confused, which only made me feel old.
I'm feeling plenty old lately. My middle sister Beth is getting married on Saturday in NYC. I was the first wedding among my siblings, and then 13 long dry years elapsed before the next one. Now my younger siblings are getting hitched one after another, with breathtaking speed. Only one will be single after this weekend. None of this should be surprising as I have had plenty of years to prepare myself, but somehow it is anyway. In a similar vein, it was recently pointed out to me that I was old enough to be the mother of my favorite high school students, and that Matt and I have been together long enough that we could, without stretching the imagination at all, have a high school student of our own. I am not scared of getting old, and have no problem celebrating birthdays, but when I have turned the corner and become invisible to the plumber, useful only as a dictionary, then something has shifted. I am not sure I like it.
It's all very humbling; and last weekend only drove home this point. Saturday night was my end-of-the-year studio recital . In the weeks prior, I had organized a local music evaluation event with some 70 little pianists. I had attended meetings of various kinds here and in Santa Fe. I had met several writing deadlines for various publications. My dad came for a week-long visit. In other words, I wasn't without something to do. But there is something about pulling together 25 students to play in a recital that is its own special kind of stress. Even after all these years, and countless successful recitals, I still feel the weight of the event. For one thing, I usually perform myself, because I feel like it is good for my students and parents to see me play, and I always have certain prepared remarks to make. This, coupled with the energy and focus required to channel 25 students' performances, makes the focus and energy for my own music-making rather diffused, to say the least. And then there are all the details: Getting the recital space cleaned up and ready, hauling all the supplies and setting up the reception, proofing the program at least ten times. For someone who prefers to think globally, this is a lot of unwelcomed minutiae to attend to. Having said all of this, the recital went beautifully. The kids played better than ever, my Ravel and my new lace green skirt a friend had made for me in India both came off as planned, the spoken remarks were well received. After weeks of details of one form or another, after Saturday, I felt like I could coast: one week of a light make-up schedule and then I was on a plane to NYC to read e.e. cummings poems at my sister's wedding. To put it simply, I had cruise control on and was taking in the view.
Cruising is dangerous indeed. Sunday morning I woke up, read some of the New York Times with my coffee and started to pull together my thoughts for the church service I had agreed to play that morning. I was looking through music and picking out a prelude and postlude (yeah, I confess, I was doing this at the very last minute.), and glancing over the service music. I cruised into the kitchen, found a mango that needed eating, and began peeling and slicing it. At which point I promptly sliced off the end of my thumb. It was quite a clean slice, nothing that would need stitches because there was nothing left to stitch. It didn't even hurt that bad (although I should qualify that statement by admitting that I have a very high tolerance for pain, given that I am a life-long migraine sufferer). I wrapped a towel around it and went back to my music.
It would not stop bleeding. I put some band-aids on it, and covered my hand with a towel and decided that I was still going to follow through with my plans to stop on my way to church and buy the rest of the plants I needed for the flower bed that runs along my driveway. With a bloody towel covering my thumb, I drove to Kmart, loaded my cart with lilies and petunias, and proceeded to the check-out counter.
And this is where it really hits you that my life isn't glamorous at all, for as I am standing in the check-out line with my cart full of plants and my bloody towel-covered thumb, I reach into my over-sized purse and discover that I have dumped an entire bottle of water into my purse. This would be of the 32-ounce size. I am holding a bag of water. Everything is soaked. My wallet, weeks worth of receipts needing to be filed, the scores I needed that very morning. Everything. Of course, I quickly become soaked as well, which doesn't mix well with the fact that I am still gushing blood. Immediately, I am covered with not just water, but bloody water. And I am now late for church.
Forget that lovely recital of the evening before. Forget that every once in a while, I clean up quite nicely, looking, well, almost glamorous. Forget any pretense I might have that I have my act together. Forget everything. I am standing in a checkout line -- at K-MART! --my thumb is squirting blood, and I am carrying a purse full of water. This is not what strangers have in mind when they think "concert pianist." A plumber about now would come in handy.
April 11th, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
Today I bought four roses: two climbers and two small bushes. They were 75% off
at my local Jackalope
because they were "mystery" roses, which means someone lost
the tags that should identity variety and color. Since the
whole art of growing roses is a mystery to me, I don't see the
"mystery" roses as particularly risky or threatening so I
gleefully bought them. Such a purchase is a gesture of hope, not
only that the winter storm we had this week is only a fluke and not a
return to cold weather, but also toward another whole year of gardening. I am ready--beyond ready--to reclaim
the garden for another season of outdoor living, turning our front
courtyard and back garden into "bonus rooms" to our house. In fact,
I have resorted to bribery to keep myself from hauling outside all
the geraniums and catci that have been wintering indoors in my
sunroom. My favorite weekend every spring is the one when I can
clear out the dozens of plants that fill the corners of my house for
a long six months every year, making our tiny living space that much
more crowded. I have decided Easter weekend is the chosen date
this year for this happy event, although every day I practically have
to tie my hands behind my back to prevent myself from carrying
outside even one little plant. Maybe it won't matter, I try to
persuade myself. Maybe this is the year we won't get a late
spring frost. I know this is futile wishing, because it is
simply too early to risk even the heartiest succulents. But hourly I
have this internal conversation with myself, counting the days till
Easter. In the meantime, I am trying to quiet my distructive
gardening urges by reading books by other gardeners. Lately, I
have been consuming Onward and Upward in the Garden, by
Katherine White, who was the wife of Charlotte's Web's own
E.B. White. Ms. White, as I feel sure she was called, wrote
about gardening for The New Yorker, and her astute
observations about everything from gardening catalogues to flower arranging make her a fine companion to my first cup of coffee in
the morning. Up to this point, she is even suppressing my urge to
do something in the garden that I will most likely regret later.
Recently, we have celebrated spring
break, both in the public schools in our city and in my studio.
I spent the much of the week throwing myself into domesticity, as I so often do whenever there
is a pause in my work schedule. I
planted my new mystery rose bushes, and spent many happy outside hours doing those early spring gardening chores. Inside, I
cleaned a bit, sorted through winter clothes in the first attempt at
turning over our closets for the season, organized files and piles.
We refinanced our house, finished the last of the tax details for the
year, and shredded twelve months worth of random papers. It
felt good, this sifting and sorting, filing and fussing around the
house. Undoubtedly, it will make it easier to work in the weeks
to come because I am simply more organized, but more than that, this
kind of cleaning seems to open up space in my brain and my life,
rearranging tired old patterns and behaviors, and dusting off
abandoned but valuable ideas and habits. It's a good thing,
this spring cleaning of the soul; I feel sorted out and polished up,
and almost---almost--ready to tackle the next daunting,
full-to-the-brim, six weeks.
In between bursts of spring weather and cleaning was a
trip to Lubbock for lessons with my coach, Bill
Westney . This time I
traveled with a musical colleague, Jerome
, and my always-up-for-anything-kind-of-friend, Lora
. ("Lubbock Funfest Spring Break 2009," as Lora took
to calling it.) Twelve hours in the car, four hours of lessons,
one pair of snake-skin cowboy boots purchased, a visit to the grave of Billy the Kid, and a cooler of Blue
Bell ice cream smuggled over the border will be the lasting memories
from Funfest 2009. The following week, Matt and I did an overnight in Santa Fe that produced a great black wrappy thing bought
in a boutique, but was mostly colored by the stomach flu I fought all
week. I played a New Mexico Symphony concerto competition with
a symphony-playing colleague (she--we--won!) and
finished up a recording project with a singer. I read a lot,
fell asleep every night to old Quincy episodes, saw friends for drinks, coffee and dinners. It was,
in spite of the stomach flu, a great week.
In a front yard halfway between Lora's
house and mine sits a funny bird statue. Last fall, during one
of our early morning walks past the house, Lora decided that the bird looked cold, and needed a scarf to get through the winter. "I
am going to scarf that bird," Lora announced, and proceeded to
knit a bird-size scarf. The evening of January 1, after
several glasses of wine, Lora and I snuck over to our nameless
neighbors and "scarfed the bird." I thought the
mischief was over, but as the scarf remained on the bird seeing (the neighbors apparently liked it), Lora began making further plans. These involved costumes and accessories fitting every major holiday.
For Valentine's Day there would be a new bright red scarf with
fringe. (The fringe part made me nervous, because I knew Lora
can't fringe. That could only mean I would fringing the bird
scarf, further implicating me in this crime.) On February 13, I finished Lora's knitting and fringed both ends; Lora bought
glittery heart-shaped stakes to stick in the ground below the bird,
and "Scarfing the Bird, Take Two" was accomplished,
documented by our friend Katie, home from college. (We really
ought to know better than to get underaged people involved in our criminal behavior.)
Since then, there has been a St. Patty's Day costume: a green scarf, and a headband decked with
twirly shamrocks which sits jauntily on the poor statue's head, and large shamrocks on posts driven into the ground in front. The men who live there clearly
don't care, and also don't appreciate the stealthiness in which we
are managing the change of costumes. The morning of St. Patrick's Day we got the changeover down to about 15 seconds. There
is a pink bow in the works for Easter (with rabbit ears and rubber ducks to float in the Zen pond nearby), a sombrero and
poncho for Cinco de Mayo, something white and wedding-like for June, and so on down the calendar year.
It is always a good idea to have a
back-up career ready to go, and perfecting my stealthy
scarfing the bird routine is a good place to start in case the music
thing doesn't work out. Meanwhile, I have my own mysteries
right here in my little patch of the planet, what with the four new roses and all, and plenty of musical and pedagogical work to
keep me out of trouble for a while, as I take a deep breath and plunge
into the next marathon month.
March 8th, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
Quite unbelievably, spring has arrived
to New Mexico.
I say this with some trepidation, because last year we had a frost on May 6. Or so the woman
working in my neighborhood nursery told me. I went there last
weekend to buy seeds, trying to satisfy my hungry inner gardener with
a cheap fix. "Don't even think about pruning back roses
now. If it gets cold again, you could kill them. And wait
before planting these seeds; it's just too early." This
isn't what I wanted to hear, my fingers itching to get outside and
dirty. However, I can start cutting back all the summer
flowering bushes, I understand, which is enough to keep me out of
trouble and away from the rose bushes and seed packages for a few
I don't know if
spring is the cure I need these days for, truth be told, it hasn't
been a tough winter. In fact, its been the mildest winter for
years. We have had so little moisture of any kind---rain, snow,
ice---that I have had to water faithfully. Although we finally
roof above our bedroom, late last
fall another problem appeared in the canale (that's a drain spout in New Mexico) outside the sun-room,
and we've been lazy about getting to it. So far this
procrastination is paying off quite nicely, because we haven't needed
it repaired. But this dry, dry weather makes me think my skin
just might flake off completely, leaving me a raw pile of muscles and
blood. I am convinced every March that this is the year I
just might shed my skin, crawling out of it and leaving it in a
corner to decompose. Especially these days, when my old tired
patterns seem especially exhausting, the idea of a fresh start is a
So even though spring feels a bit like a too-early,
undeserved gift at this point, I'm taking it. I need the boost,
the shot of pure new energy in my veins. Oh, there's been
plenty of energy expenditure lately, activities piling rapidly on top
of one other: I played a recital with a UNM faculty member last
week and am deep in rehearsals for an upcoming recording session, as
well as practicing for the next recital and competition. I am
off to do a workshop in El Paso next week, and am in the preliminary
stages of organizing the PEP student contest next month for our local
MTNA group . Last month Matt
organized a workshop with composer and teacher Alice
Parker , which involved a weekend
of events: a dinner party at our house Friday evening, a
day-long workshop, dinner out with Alice Saturday night, Alice's
community "Sing" Sunday afternoon, another dinner party in
her honor Monday night, and on and on. "I'll feed you
lunch if you come over and help me for a half-hour," I begged my
friend Lora Friday morning, fearing that I couldn't get my house dug
out and my party hat on by the start of the weekend.
"Another dinner party?" Lora asked on
our Tuesday pre-dawn walk. "You were at another dinner
party last night? How important is this woman anyway?" Pretty
important, I'd say. Alice is inarguably one of the most
recognizable names in the choral world, and one of the most
important---perhaps the most important-- composer and
teacher of her generation. Matt has studied with
her several times, and has always told me "You and Alice are
kindred spirits." I've always taken that with a grain of salt, for I know Alice to be a fiercely determined teacher who, for all of her gentle demeanor, does not suffer fools gladly. (Matt says she has "dimples of iron.") But I've
always suspected that he might be right; that we think about music and
teaching in much the same way, and that we share an intolerance for Mickey Mouse. Having Alice here for the
weekend--in our house!--was one of those rare opportunities to rub elbows with a professional,
musical, and personal hero, well
worth all the dinner hoopla that went with it.
classes last weekend, we held
"Scale Olympics," which is my sorry attempt to get some
dedicated scale practice out of my students. Students play
scales---majors or minors; one to four octaves depending on the
level---with the metronome, higher speeds getting more points for
their teams. This is always educational for me, finding out
which kids buckle under pressure. Ian, who had been nailing four-octave major scales in sixteenth-notes for weeks now, completely
crashed on the first scale. Later that week I asked him, "So
what happened?" "Too much pressure," he
responded, "I can't do it when everyone is looking at me."
"Being able to do things under pressure is a life skill,"
I reminded him. "Think about that pilot who landed the plane in
the Hudson; thank goodness he didn't crack." Without
missing a beat, Ian replied, "Playing scales is harder."
But the idea that our practice should
teach us about life seems to be the theme of the week, for just this
morning in yoga, our teacher said the same thing, reminding us to
breathe as we struggled through our various poses. "We get
stressed in life and we hold our breath. What we are doing here
isn't really about perfecting poses on this mat. It's supposed
to be teaching us how to live our lives."
Lately it seems all my good ideas
come from yoga class, this practice teaching me at least as well as
any piano pedagogy course ever did. During lessons, I find myself
asking over and over again, "Am I teaching a life skill here?
Is there any value in any of this away from the piano bench?"
Most of the time, I think that most of what we do does teach
something relevant outside the walls of my studio, but sometimes that
question clarifies things quickly, making me get right to the essence
of what we might be doing, or should be doing. It's amazing how
much Mickey Mouse exists, even for those of us with a high degree of
sensitivity towards it.
In the middle of
this burst of spring and insight, I woke up last Tuesday and realized
it was Mardi Gras. "Where are our pancakes?" I
asked Matt as I poured myself a cup of coffee. "I'm
eating pancakes twice today," he replied. "I'm going
out for pancakes for lunch and tonight we are having pancakes at church before my meeting." This seemed rather overdoing it, but it did inspire me to wander down to the neighborhood
Star for my own pancakes at
lunchtime. "Do you want a dinner roll with that?"
the girl behind the counter asked me. "No, I
think I'll be OK for carbs, thanks." I repled.
Reeling from all
of the last few months , I'm
embracing the idea that I, too, could turn over a new leaf and shed
some skin, holding out hope that something of beauty might emerge
from all this unsettledness. In the meantime, yesterday,
the first yellow and red-striped tulip peeked her head out, and with
it--garden wisdom be damned--spring has just tiptoed into my yard.
February 15th, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
I have a cat that often spends entire
days under the covers. Lately, I can relate.
We all have moments when we want to
pull the covers over our heads, but recently these kinds of days have
been all too frequent. January and February have never been my
favorite months; after the sparkle and shimmer of the holidays, they seem bleak in comparison. They signal the
beginning of what is always a daunting spring schedule of recitals
and competitions, which require working more weekends than not.
There are tax-related chores to be done, "taxes"
being my least favorite word in the English language. (I am a
self-employed person, after all . . .) And to make it worse, the weather is tiresome at best. Even though we have had an unseasonably warm winter, this limbo time of "is it cold or is it not?" gets on my nerves. On top of all that, the last
month has brought more disappointments and angst than I normally deal
with. Sometimes it doesn't take much: a couple of pieces
of particularly bad news, a major disappointment or two, and I can be sent reeling. No wonder the covers have their allure.
The root of the
problem is probably not what life has thrown at me this month, but
rather how ungrounded I have gotten the last few months. It
started back with the hand
problems I developed last winter. These have come and gone, depending on my performing load at the
moment or how taxing the music I needed to learn might be. But
some time ago, I promised everyone in my life that I would take some
time off from playing the piano, give my hands a complete break and
see if I could unwind this problem even further than my daily
maintenance therapy allows me to do. I played my last recital
of the semester on December 15, and then took a month off. ("The
Break," as my friends and family named it.) "How's The
Break going?" concerned friends would call and ask. Fine, I'd answer, most days breezily. Over the holidays there
were plenty of distractions to keep me busy; it was actually a less
stressful holiday than usual, because I wasn't trying to practice. There
were a few touch-and-go days, and hours when I thought I just might
climb the walls if I couldn't practice; nights where I thought surely
the center of my being had been taken out and buried somewhere far
away. I have long known that I don't just practice to stay on
top of my chops or to learn music for some upcoming gig. I
practice because that time on the bench grounds and centers me; it is
both my meditation and my art. Without it, I am more than a
I began edging
back to the piano bench in mid-January. I was ready -- beyond
ready -- to get back to the piano, but getting back into it
hasn't really been that easy. My hands are status quo--neither
significantly worse nor significantly better. I am blessed with
a triple whammy of carpal tunnel tendencies: I am a small woman, which gives me little room for error in my joints; I have an aunt and
a mother who have had CT surgery in both wrists, signifying genetic tendencies; I am both a pianist and a
writer, spending hours on one keyboard or another. I will have
a lifelong fight to stay ahead of the problem which, even with the
best technique and conscientious care, will be a tough battle. But
my hands haven't been the recent issue. Instead, there was the
realization that my life was plenty full enough without doing three hours
of practicing a day. In the days before my return to
practicing, I wondered exactly how I was going to manage again. Days
of teaching and writing and general household chores of cooking and
cleaning kept me busy enough, I was surprised to find. I got a
glimpse of what it might look like not
to be maxed out all the time. I
taught better; I wrote better; I was a better friend and wife. I
wanted more than anything to get back to the piano, but what I didn't
want to get back to was the sense that my best self was once again
So, as I eased back in, I found myself
conflicted: eager to play again, but resentful of what taking
on this art form demands of my life and my relationships. And
several weeks in, I am far from finding my stride. Although I
am not playing more than two hours a day, tops, it still is hard to
squeeze in. I've all but stopped writing, the books I picked up
over the holidays are sitting on the floor by the couch, unopened. I
haven't cooked in ten days.
Every morning, my black and white cat Yun-Sun and I have a ritual. While I am
sitting on the couch drinking my cup of coffee and reading, she jumps into my lap and places her head onto my shoulder. She nuzzles
against my neck for several minutes, purring her quiet purr, and then jumps down again. This happens every morning like clockwork, and my husband says that
this ritual is a significant one, that by this action Yun-Sun is saying, "OK. I'll be your cat for another day." By snuggling up with her, I essentially reply, "OK. I will take
care of you for another day." And so, daily we repeat this
ritual, re-establishing our bonds for another 24-hour period.
It occurs to me that this is not a bad way to live one's life: to
take every day as it comes, and to actively revisit our commitments
and relationships on a daily basis. Certainly, it makes more
sense to me than those Five-Year Planners they sell in bookstores, with
pages for long-term and short-terms goals and action items. I
can handle today, at least most days; I can build a life and a
schedule, even complete with daily to-do lists and action items. But
beyond that, goal setting seems futile and useless. I have
never been able to dream big enough to capture all of what life might
throw at me. If I were in charge, no doubt, my life would be
much smaller and much less rich than my current version. In
fact, I think we get into trouble the minute we start projecting too
far into the future, because the future is not guaranteed, nor can it be
predicted. I would have never dreamed I would be living in New
Mexico. I didn't manipulate life's events so I would end up
being a writer and a pianist; it just sort of happened, one day of
authentic living folding into another, until a life's work began
Here's what I know: tough
months, physical challenges, professional and personal
disappointments be damned, I can handle today. OK. I
will take care of my two cats. I will be a wife, a daughter, a
friend, a sister to my loved ones. I will be a teacher for
another day: fixing mistakes, problem-solving thorny passages,
witnessing small acts of making music, all the while juggling the
roles of mentor, musician, and psychologist. I
will be a pianist and a writer, committing myself to spending hours
wrestling with notes and words for another 24-hour period. My
ability to cope might get dicey if I think too much about what is
being demanded of me or if I look too far into the future, but today,
today, I can manage.
December 25th, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
It has been a wacky season around here.
Case in point: Several years
ago my mother gave us a nativity set. It is one of those
lovely hand-carved wooden ones she bought at a Beyond
Borders kind of market. I am happy to own it, and love to get
it out each December. However, every year there is drama around
this nativity scene.
When it first
arrived, I unpacked it and was setting it up when Yun-Sun (who
was then just a kitten) jumped up and grabbed a lamb and went
scampering off delightedly. All month it was a battle to keep
the little figures out of the cats' mouths. Another year, I
thought I had gotten it high enough to survive a season with the
felines, when we came home to find the scene in a disarray: sheep
toppled over, cows turned upside down, and Mary---the Queen of
Heaven---nowhere to be found. Since nothing else in our house
was touched, clearly we had not been robbed, this was simply another
case of a cat getting her paws where she didn't belong. "Godiva!"
I hollered, knowing it was probably her. Mary
didn't appear until the following summer when I was moving furniture
painting project. Instead,
for the remainder of the season, Jesus was watched over by Joseph and
a stray Shepherd, giving new meaning to the concept of a baby
having two daddies.
This year, the
nativity mischief continues. For days I have been walking by
the chest in the sun-room that houses the manger and
noticing all kinds of strange behavior: a cow sitting on a wise
man's head, a sheep standing in the cradle.
I have tried
blaming Matt, thinking he was playing games with me, but he has
denied any wrong doing. My students would be the next suspects,
except it isn't clear who, day after day, is doing this since I see
different kids every day of the week. The cats? While
they lack opposable thumbs, they have been known to
things. It is totally
possible. In the meantime, it is simply a mystery.
Truth is, Christmas season is always
a bit strange around our house. Like many musicians, my work
can crescendo this month due to numerous extra rehearsals, recitals,
juries and other odd gigs. But usually, about ten days before
Christmas my work falls off, suddenly--subito--leaving me with
unfamiliar gaps and holes in my schedule. Likewise, my teaching
grinds to a halt about the same time. The final week of the
teaching semester occurred mid-December and was followed by a much
less busy make-up week. (My students are never sick. I
appreciate this come make-up time, as I have few lessons to teach,
but I'm less fond of this mid-semester when I can go weeks, months
even, without a cancelled lesson).
My husband, on the other hand, makes
his living in church music, which means his life accelerates all the
way up to Christmas Eve. This means he has more rehearsals and
more performances to deal with in the ten days before Christmas, just
as my life is slowing down. Early on in our marriage, this
juxtaposition bothered me, as I was left alone to my own devices in
the days before Christmas. I remember one year in
particular when Matt, in typical procrastination fashion, spent
Christmas Eve working on his bulletins and I spent the day home
alone. At the time, I was upset that he couldn't have planned
better; today, I'd welcome the solitude--the gift of a day to myself.
This year the pattern continues. I
am done teaching my final lessons and have a blessed two weeks of
vacation ahead of me. Matt has been up to his ears in work,
most nights not coming home till 10pm or later after an evening of
choir rehearsals. I have welcomed these quiet nights more than ever, because for the last month I have been fighting one sickness after
another, clearly because I am exhausted. Of course, I have
been teaching through it all -- no doubt the root of the
problem -- but that is water under the bridge at this point.
Anyone looking back at the past would see a pattern of December
colds, flu, and general exhaustion in my life. I recognize
this is not the best way to keep Christmas.
But other yearly
rituals help counter these bad
tendencies. Besides the manger, the house is decorated in full
spirit---stockings hung; icicles dangled from windows and chandelier;
beads draped across the fireplace; crocheted angels, bells, and
strands of cranberries on the mantle. Of course, I have added
collections of stars wherever possible, turning our home into a
virtual galaxy of sorts. There is a star collection hanging above my
piano, another decorating a dining room corner, and in my latest
creative burst, I hung cookie cutter stars above my kitchen sink,
making a Milky Way of shadows on the wall. "Ooooo...."
said the 12-year-old girls from Matt's youth choir when they came for
cookies and cider after an evening of caroling. "That
looks soooooo cool." At least my decorating is a hit with
the pre-teen crowd.
I wish on lots of stars these days,
sending my prayers for peace and happiness across the universe.
As we approach a new year, I am ever hopeful: I am hopeful
about this new administration coming to Washington. I am hopeful
that these enforced changes on our lives due to economy will usher in
a gentler, more authentic world, less driven by consumerism.
But still I wish, and still I pray, finding stars to direct my
thoughts. "I was out for stars . . ." Robert Frost
wrote. These days, so am I.
October 19th, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
It would be easier to keep my ducks
in a row if I didn't keep losing one.
Thinking about ducks reminds me of
the "Make Way for Ducklings" statues in the Boston Public Garden,
whose inspiration comes from the children's book by Robert McCloskey. People were always stealing these
gold-plated duck statues, which was a bit unsettling. There was nothing like dashing through the Garden on the way to the Arlington
subway stop, only to discover that Jack or Mack or Ouack or
Quack was missing.
Lately, I can relate. I
understand that the whole point of ducks is that they like queuing
up--when it's their idea. However, they will resist falling
into lines of my choosing, instead wiggling and waddling in a
disorderly fashion. I get this. But what is perplexing to
me at the moment is that I keep misplacing one.
Actually in the last week, I have
lost like five ducks. I'm usually good at keeping track of my
life, but lately I am forgetting important things right and
left. I'm sure this has something to do with the busyness of the past several
weeks, and all the weekends I've been working recently. It can't
be avoided. There is just a lot going on at the moment: extra
recitals, performance classes, workshops, lessons, and competitions.
I want my students to be a part of these things, and am willing
to give up a few weekends in return. But I am waking up in the
middle of the night remembering that I forgot to send footnote
information with my last column, or that I never returned the phone
call to a student's parent. In a recent redistribution of
chores, I have taken on making Matt's lunch. I have yet to
remember actually to make his lunch, and the dear man is kind enough
not to nag me, which means that he must be going hungry.
Yesterday I forgot how to spell the
name of the street I have lived on for the last three and a half
years. I am not kidding; I could not get past the third
letter. Yes, I am an awful speller, but this is beyond
belief. Today I forgot an appointment with my acupuncturist.
She has a 24-hour cancellation policy or you pay anyway,
something I totally agree with, which means this overlooked duck will
cost me. Ironically, I had just laid down on the couch with a
horrible headache when she called wondering where I was. I
didn't pick up the phone, because I was feeling too sick. I'd
like to say that the headache was so terrible that I forgot my
appointment, but the truth is, it was never on my radar. I
never knew I had this on my schedule, even though the entry "12:30
Acupuncture" was staring me in the face when I looked at my
calendar. This indicates there are even things written down
that are no longer registering or prompting my attention. I
think this is a cosmic sign that my brain hasn't been allowed to
wander or unfocus for weeks now.
Last weekend topped everything: Matt
was in Houston for a performance. I suffered (there really is
no other word) through seven hours of a piano competition with six
students on Friday. Saturday, I endured the winner's recital
(four kids playing), and a two-hour rehearsal with a splitting
migraine. (See above: "missed acupuncture appointment.")
I was in bed and asleep by 8:45pm, only to be awakened at 10:30
because the bedroom roof was leaking. In my migraine-drug-induced state I reasoned that it never rains very long in the
desert, and I threw down a towel and went back to sleep. At 2am
I was jerked from a deep slumber because it was leaking in about five
spots over in the corner, and it was still raining. As it
happens, just last week we had the roof checked out, only to be told that
it "looked great"! Apparently, not so great after 12
hours of downpour. Sunday, sleep-deprived and still fighting
this headache, I taught two make-up lessons, and played two
rehearsals, putting in a six-hour work day. In no alternative
universe does this list of activities count as a "weekend."
I fear it is not just the cracks in
the roof that are showing up, but the cracks in my well-being. In
a strange twist of fate, this is all happening just as the latest
American Music Teacher hits the mailboxes around the
country. In my most recent column, I brag that I am handling
time just fine. Although that may have been true when I
wrote the column three months ago, it's now officially a lie. I
am beyond exhausted, irritable, and simply not handling even the
slightest challenge being thrown my way with any grace. I find
myself lashing out at the world, only to discover that the world as
we have known it is cracking apart at the seams as well. It's
a difficult time on all fronts.
My problem is that
the line between being quite well and being far less than so is very
fine. It has been the same with my
migraines: I never had the
signs that a headache was coming on; I just went straight from being
well to being sick. It wasn't until I figured out that there
had to be a place in between being well and being sick I needed to be attentive to, before I started
to turn my migraine habit around. I know this personality trait
of being mostly fine until I am most certainly not must work in the
same way. I have to recognize signs that might mean I am
in trouble before I start cracking open, or misplacing important
As anyone who has spent time with unruly ducks can tell you, this is easier said than done. In fact,
the characteristic that makes me gifted at handling many
things at once is the very one that hurts me here, because normal warnings
don't register. What my migraine therapist told me again and
again (until I practically had the concept tattooed on my forehead) was that I would need to learn to actively look for danger signs. I would need to learn to not overextend, even when I
thought I felt OK. I would need to play it safe until I figured
out what a pre-headache looked like. "The signs are
there," Patti told me over and over again, "You just
aren't recognizing them."
I know its the same thing here. As
much as I think I ought to be fine with working five weekends in a
row, that needs to be not OK in the Amy Wellness Manual. (My father
would remind me that this is just common sense, but I never had a lot
of common sense. I have lots of sense, just not of the common
variety. "Amen!" my husband would say to that confession.) Over
Labor Day, I played a huge recital with a professional flutist. Afterward, my
friend Anne greeted me backstage and asked about the rest of my
weekend. "Oh, this is an easy weekend," I told her.
"All I had was this recital, and now I am coasting."
She looked at me in alarm. "You know there is
something wrong with your life when playing a major recital is an
Although it is weeks too late, I get it. I can't
afford to lose any more ducks, or suffer any more cracks in my
weekend we are headed to Taos for
our annual "escape
the balloon fiesta" trip. We
will stay in the Taos
Inn right on the plaza in a
cozy, charming room with a fireplace. We will eat well, wander
through art galleries, hike along the river, read and sleep. I
might even look for ducks, for some of my missing ones might be
hiding in an old adobe house, waiting to be found.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I stole that first photo off the Internet and I have no idea whose photo it is. I, however, took all the other, less-than-fabulous, pictures.
July 12th, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
To know my husband is to know that he
has, shall we say, hair issues. These aren't the normal hair-loss issues of a man rapidly approaching middle age. No, Matt's
problem is that he has a lot of wild, unruly hair, and absolutely no
hair management skills. His hair tools consist of a comb, which dates back to the 1980's. One wonders if it wasn't once lodged in the back pocket of a pair of skin-tight Jordache jeans, which isn't a particularly sexy image in 2008. The other product is a tube of dollar hair gel, which I bought him out of desperation. "This costs a dollar. Couldn't you do better?" Matt questioned me. "Don't I deserve the expensive stuff if I am going to start using product?" Not in my opinion. He needed to first prove his dedication to product before I was spending any real money on hair gel. Admittedly, it doesn't help that he is married to a
woman for whom hair doesn't rank very high in importance. I
have relatively thick, wavy hair that has still managed to stay
mostly blond. I wash it, blow-dry it, and
throw it up in a curlers for a few minutes every morning.
Otherwise I ignore it. I don't want to be bothered with Matt's
But other people are, and in huge numbers.
His kids in the youth choir comment about it. His older female
volunteers nag him about it. He was even once stopped on the
street and asked to be a hair model for a salon. His hair is a
running joke at church and among all his friends. Recently, he
went golfing with a couple of high school kids from church.
"Will you bring clubs for me?" he asked Katie, having
never been golfing before. "I'll bring the clubs.
You bring your hair," she responded.
The issue is that he
doesn't get regular haircuts, letting it grow out to the point of
becoming unwieldy. He talks a great deal about getting a
haircut, but then many, many weeks go by before he can bring himself
to actually make an appointment. For a while he had a regular hairdresser whom he liked, who cut hair in a
trendy neighborhood salon that served wine and beer. He was
more inspired to get a haircut then, but then Rachel moved to Taos.
After that he would wait until there was practically op-ed pieces in
the newspaper about his hair, and then would frantically drive around
until he found an open barbershop. His opening line was, "I'm
here for a haircut. It has been a long time since my last
haircut," which echos of his earlier Catholic days in the confessional.
Needless to say, the haircuts were never good, looking much like he
was about ready to ship out to boot camp. This scene happened
one year at Easter, Matt becoming completely disheveled and in
desperate need of a haircut, but then unable to find somewhere to get
his hair cut on Good Friday. This led our friend Regina into
calling the late stages of Matt's hair growth his "Easter
hair." Just recently, Matt had a big performance, no time
for a haircut, and had to once again go on stage with "Easter
hair." Lora commented afterwards, "Yeah, yeah, yeah,
the music was amazing, but let's talk about Matt's hair. Your
husband has a great head of hair."
Sure, if you like the look of Kramer on Seinfeld. At some point
recently I finally accepted the hair responsibilities in the
relationship and sent Matt to Leonardo, my hair guy, with a note.
The note read,
This is my husband, who desperately needs a
haircut. He has great hair, but is unable to talk coherently to
hair stylists. Hence the note. We like it long on top (I
am a fan of his curls), but shorter and neater on sides and back.
He does have the unfortunate habit of running his fingers through it
during rehearsals, which does nothing to contribute to the style, but
does add to the mad artist look he's got going. Help!
Leonardo has been doing a great job, and consults me seriously as to
my opinions about Matt's most recent haircut every time I see him.
Matt still doesn't get regular enough haircuts though, which forced
me to instruct him last time to "take your calendar and do
not leave without making another appointment in three weeks."
I almost called Leonardo with the same instructions, but refrained,
not wanting to win the award for the most controlling wife in New
Mexico. Last week Matt left on a youth choir trip to San
Antonio (he says his mission in life is to introduce these desert
kids to humidity, taking them first to Washington DC, then two years
ago to New Orleans, and this year to Texas.). The first stop on the trip was a
church in Granbury, Texas, where Matt served as
the music director years ago. The congregation was thrilled to
see him and enjoyed the kids' production of Godspell.
One former member of his choir was especially enthusiastic.
Bill, a successful businessman, was always very generous to us, and as he left the show he
handed Matt an envelope that Matt assumed was a donation to the
choir. Later he opened it. It was a personal check made
out to Matt for a hundred dollars. The memo line read: "Haircut."
July 4th, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
Last week I went to
get a pedicure. It was the middle of a work day, and very quiet
in the shop. There was a young girl of maybe ten or eleven years hanging
out in one of the chairs with the foot baths, who clearly belonged to
one of the people who worked there. A woman gestured me into a
chair next to the girl and began filling the tub with water. I
put down my bags and climbed up. Just as I was getting settled
in to read a magazine, the girl turned to me and said, "What's
"Amy." I responded. "What's
"Where do you work?"
work at home."
Without missing a beat: "You
teach from home?"
I'm impressed that she might guess
"That's cool. You
mean, you teach math and science at your house?"
"Oh." Long pause. "Piano
is hard, isn't it?"
I nodded. "It can
"I'd like to play the piano."
long pause. I am about to return to my magazine when....
you have any kids?"
about dogs or cats or fish?"
"I have two
"Oh, what are their names?"
"What do they look like?"
is black and white...."
"Like an oreo,"
Jennifer inserted. "You could have named her
"True," I agreed.
does the other one look like?"
"She's chocolate-colored. You know, like Godiva chocolates."
It is clear
she has no idea what Godiva chocolates are. She is quiet,
"Oh. You could have named her
'Reece's' or 'Hershey's' or 'Twix'."
This girl has some
good ideas, I must say.
I was resuming my reading, when out
of the blue....
"If you could be in a time machine and
could go back and do any other job, what would you do?"
was taken aback by this question. Stalling for time like any
good Miss America contestant, I said, "Wow. Interesting
"Not interesting, good
question," she corrected me.
question." Still stalling, I asked, "What would
"I would be a doctor."
good. You could be a doctor, you know," I told her
"I know. Now what would you be?"
She clearly was not going to let me off the hook.
writer?" I said. (When I relayed this conversation
later to a friend she said, "That answer was cheap, Amy.
You are a writer." Yes, but Jennifer doesn't know
Long pause. "What's that?"
know, someone who writes books."
could still do that, you know. There is still time.
You could go back to school or something."
I was floored
by this response. There is still time, this child has
just encouraged me. There is still time.
have I needed this piece of wisdom thrown in my direction more than
now. It may be only the first of July, but already I feel the
summer racing out of my reach. I am teaching a ton,
playing a ton, and every day seems to hold more obligations and
responsibilities than hours. Recently, Matt and I were
discussing the possibility of having some friends over for dinner.
But there was a trip home to the midwest for a week, then on the
heels of that Matt left for 10 days with his youth choir to Texas.
"Stick a fork in it, June's done." Matt said.
Something panics within me at this statement.
Summer can't be done yet. There are too many things I planned
to do: clean out the garage, finally organize my teaching
files, read through a tall stack of music, learn the Chopin G Minor
Ballade. At the very least, I was hoping for one empty afternoon
to sit in an Adirondack chair, drink lemonade and watch the
lavender blow in the breeze. "What does 'having a summer'
really mean to you?" I asked Matt. "What do you
need to feel like you really 'had' summer?" "I don't
know," Matt admitted. "I haven't known what I wanted
out of summer since I was a kid." I think I know what I
want: time to play aimlessly with no end goal in sight.
Which sits in opposition to the lists that I scratch out in my
calendar and journals: learn to make tarts and pizzas, dig up
two new borders around my flagstone walks, read poetry, write
letters. It is this conflict between all I want to do and the
desire to have plenty of time to do nothing that haunts every
summer. Too many years, I just throw in the towel, resign
myself to my normal ambitious tendencies of over-achieving, and bask
in all I manage to accomplish. Not the spirit of summer at all,
There is still time. I will need a
regular reminder of this gentle thought between now and the
unofficial end of summer somewhere around the middle of August when
school begins around here. Luckily, I know where to find
March 25th, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
I have completed a grand slam of
organizing lately. I do this when I am in-between jobs or
projects, suddenly inspired to clean out closets, drawers, the garage
and basement. As a result of all this clearing out of space, I
have gone to the tailor three times with various items, long in need
of repair. We have our taxes done, although far from filed or
paid. (Gulp. Self-employed folks hate tax time, don't
we?). The hall closet has been tamed and beaten into
submission. I actually have one empty drawer in the chest in
the sun-room, waiting to be filled with miscellaneous items. Life is
good, or at least organized.
I'm intentionally in-between musical projects. Earlier this year I had so many splits in
my fingers caused by dry skin (I do live in the desert, after all),
that during one recording session I was bleeding on the piano.
Not pretty, and extremely painful. Coupled with these ugly, raw
hands, I have been showing the early warning signs of carpal tunnel
problems: hands falling asleep at night, minor tingling on and
off during the day, etc. This comes as no great surprise given
what I do, but since I have a horrible tendency to ignore physical
pain (see migraines) I am trying to take stock of this now. All
said, I have had little choice but to impose a restricted piano
schedule on myself. In typical Amy fashion, this does not
actually mean no piano-time, but less. I went two
weeks with little to no practicing, and am now back to a couple hours
a day. I'm trying to be disciplined and take at least one day
completely away from the piano every week, sometimes more. I'm
not taking many gigs, trying to protect my time and my hands for
a while and also looking ahead to a gig I have with the
New Mexico Symphony Orchestra in May, playing Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals."
Everything about this more careful, cautious approach to my
music-making goes against my nature; I find myself fighting
it every time the phone rings with another potential gig. I suffer from the fear that I will
jeopardize future performing opportunities by saying no right
now. Crazily enough, I fear this more than the danger of
jeopardizing my performing future by hurting my hands. I know
all too well what it feels like to not have the phone ring, and not
to be on the short list for the great gigs. I also know that
work creates work, and that just doing a certain amount of work keeps
my name out there and active. Every day that the phone doesn't ring
I'm afraid its a sign that I will never work again. No, the
hard thing here isn't coping with the physical symptoms, it is coping
with the potential professional consequences of getting out of the
game, however temporarily.
I know what the antidote to all of
this is: I need to drown myself into some new creative projects
so I can stop tormenting myself with my insecurities and fears.
With enough time and attention elsewhere, my self-destructive
tendencies cannot take root. I know this. Just like work
begets work, energy begets energy. Positive energy stirring up
something--anything--will generate endorphins, if not the next great
thing. Experience has taught me that doing the work I need to
do to get ready for what may come next will often cause that
thing to appear as if by magic. Getting my business cards made
is the first step towards having someone request one. Reading
through intermediate literature makes
it more likely that I might get a call about a talented intermediate
student. Learning a new solo recital program makes it more
likely that I will be asked to play one in the near future. I
don't understand how this works exactly, but I trust in the process.
I also know that like everything else, these cycles of lack
of confidence and increased anxiety come and go--the physical break
from the piano hasn't brought them on, just revealed what is always
there under the surface, lurking in the dark. That I just might
be as insecure and fearful and scared as the next person isn't fun to
admit. Yet there it is: the truth, staring me in the
Around me, there are a thousand signs that the creative
burst of spring is taking hold. In my garden, I have the first
yellow and red tulips--their cheerful colorful faces braving the
elements yet again this year. The daffodils I planted last fall
are beginning to emerge. My rose bushes are sending out
hundreds of tiny new leaves, bursting into bud right before my very
eyes. There are a thousand chores to be done outside, if
I can dig out an hour or two. But lately, the wind
me indoors. We have had gusts as great as 50 mph over the last few days. My big happy red umbrella has been lying on the ground for weeks now, knocked senseless by the roaring winds. I
forget every year that spring in the desert means horrible winds.
I must repress this information because I find the wind utterly
life-sucking. I may be a girl from Kansas, but Dorothy I am
not. These winds do not bring out the adventurous side of me;
if anything they make me restless and irritable. ("That's
the vata in you," my physical therapist told me, "air
doesn't like wind." I'd question the underlying validity
of this statement, if it didn't ring so utterly true.) Just
last weekend, Matt and I were in Santa Fe; I had been invited to judge a competition in Los Alamos the next day, so we made a getaway of it. I needed a day-long Julia Cameron-inspired artist date puttering around the Plaza and Canyon Road, but
the wind--there were no words. Instead, we checked into our
hotel early and spent the afternoon watching college basketball.
Which, I suppose, is an afternoon outside the norm for me as artist
dates are intended to be, just not what I had planned.
today the winds are quiet.
This morning, while pedaling to the
tailor, I saw the neighborhood roadrunner sitting in someone's
birdbath, just hanging out as if he was pretending to be a duck.
Later, on my way home, I saw him again, wet and rumpled, acting as if
he there was no place in the world he needed to be at that moment.
For all I know, he took another dip with the sparrows before getting on with his day.
courtyard, I am trying to lure the birds to my feeders, at this point
to no avail. Free food! I feel like shouting to the
skies. If anyone knows why birds might be wary of certain
feeders in particular places, do let me know. At this point, I
can only blame the cats, sitting in the windows scaring them away.
Outside my laundry hangs on the clothes line, blowing in the sunshine
and the breeze. Inside, my house is ordered, for once blessed
with a real spring cleaning. That all this cleaning would stir
up debris within me is no great surprise, disheartening as it may
But like all seasons, this too shall pass, and the
next unknown chapter will unfold. Next week is spring break, a
blessed break from teaching. We are headed to Denver on
Wednesday for a couple of days away, then Matt will fly home and I
will stay for a convention. Recently, one of my students saw
the journal advertising the convention on my desk. "Are
you going to a convention, Amy?" she asked me. "Yep,"
I answered. "Is it a piano convention? At the end
will everyone gets snacks while someone plays the piano?"
I smile just thinking about her idea of a piano convention. As
I write this, my two cats are basking in the sun-room daring the
birds to just try to enjoy the birdseed scattered on the
courtyard walls. But just now, one brave bird with a reddish throat has made his way to the bird feeder. I could just shout
for joy, watching him.
March 2nd, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
The other day after performance class I overheard two eight-year-olds talking. “Can you come over and play?” Bobby asked Jason. “No. There is no way. Right now I have to go to gymnastics and then I have a play date with David,” Jason answered. This conversation took my breath away. After all, these boys were second-graders, not CEOs with important and busy schedules to maintain. And yet, Jason sounded just like me, dismissing yet one more thing with a “No. There is no way. I’ve got to…and then I have to.….”
I’m nursing a funk at the moment, which is a direct consequence of working every weekend since the first of the year. Saturday I am playing for an all day NATS competition. Sunday afternoon and evening I have rehearsals and lessons to teach. In the next month I am doing extra rehearsals, judging a piano competition, attending a conference in Denver. It would be altogether too easy to make the answer to every question thrown my way, “No. There is no way….”
I resent this, even though I must take the blame for my own crazy schedule. I’m tired and cranky, lashing out at my husband and my students. Last night while rehearsing the prima donna song, “Art is Calling Me” in the ninth hour of a deadly long work day, I found myself thinking, “If there is anything that isn’t calling me at the moment, it would be art. Or this song. For the love of Pete, will this day ever end?”
Exhaustion is hardly attractive, I remind myself as I hurl through another day. I’ve temporarily lost the ability to dwell blissfully in the present, or to slide gracefully from one thing to another. Tomorrow is Leap Day, which should be a cause to celebrate: a gift of an extra day. I love the concept, but I’m too tired to decide how to spend any extra time, buried as I am at the moment under a daunting list of demands on my attention.
I’m not the only one that is living a Charlie Ravioli
existence, nor is it just my eight-year olds that feel the pinch. My students, in general, are simply too busy, frayed and frazzled at ages where their lives ought to be able to handle any spontaneous play date invitation. My high school students are driving me crazy right now with their constant conflicts with performance classes and even weekly lessons, and these are kids I like and want to help keep in music lessons. Every activity is closing in on them with multiple demands, and we are all losing as a result. Because my patience is short at the moment, I am more frustrated than usual, struggling to know when to gracefully bend my policies for favorite students and when to send them packing. When I allow myself to indulge in a pathetic pity party, I imagine that all these conflicts are evidence that everything comes before piano, but I know that is not the real truth, for at times they must also go to the tennis coach or the study group with piano lesson conflicts. The problem is that there are just too many conflicts. Either I bend with them if I can without breaking in two, or I get awfully angry in the meantime.
Certainly, there are too many conflicts in my own life, which is no less busy than my eight-year-olds or my eighteen-year-olds. I’ve been trying to reach my two sisters in New York for a month, the two-hour time difference and our hectic schedules making it impossible ever to connect. “What I need is an extra day in every week,” I tell Kara, a smart and witty 15-year old student. “No. If you had an extra day in every week, other people would just fill it with more work. What you need is a secret extra day that no one knows about.” She’s right, as usual. What I need is a secret
We all do, as I stare Leap Day in the face, wondering if by its very nature this isn’t the extra day of my dreams. Writing this, I wonder what it would take to rewrite the script of my life so that my default response was not, "No. There is no way...." but rather, "Why not?" After all, if there can be a legal day just inserted into the calendar every four years, then it seems anything might be possible. "Why not?" I practice saying to myself. Why not?
February 9th, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
It's been an odd winter. First, it didn't get cold, warmer fall temperatures lingering into most of December. Then when winter arrived it came with a vengence. It's been cold, cold, cold and dry as only the desert can be. The cats spend the days with their bodies draped on the baseboard heaters, warming their paws, wishing someone with a warmer house had adopted them. My skin may yet fall off. My fingers crack and bleed, getting me back, perhaps, for the hours of abuse they take daily on the keyboard. I slather them with lotions and liquid band-aid, but to no avail. One finger has been cracked open for six weeks. This is not an exaggeration.
This has been not only the winter for cold temperatures, but for colds, as in the flu-like symptoms of congestion, coughing, aching, and sore throat. Right after Thanksgiving I came down with strep throat--something I only had once before, way back in childhood. I was as sick as I have ever been, spending a week in bed contemplating death. Then, right after the holidays, Matt caught the respiratory bug that has hit Albuquerque, coughing and hacking his way through two weeks before going to the doctor with a sinus infection, blocked ear drums, and a cough that wouldn't quit. Armed with cough syrup laced with codeine, we thought we were on the other side of this madness and that we would both be blessed with a good night's sleep, when I came down with the same crud. I lost my voice for four days and so far have spent a week coughing and nursing a sore throat. This is no way to really enjoy the season.
But in spite of it all, we are branching out this winter in small ways. Because we are now subject to a box of produce from the co-op
every Monday, we are eating differently, learning how to deal with things like collard greens and kale, and making regular meals out of salads with avocados and beets. This has turned out to change our eating habits more profoundly than I had imagined, because organic produce spoils so quickly. Inspired not to let good food go bad, I wrack my brain on a daily basis trying to figure out what must be eaten NOW. Tangerines appear in our box almost weekly, so I have started taken mid-morning breaks to slice open a couple of tangerines and gnaw at them right off the rinds. I have always considered tangerines (and oranges, and all fruit that must be peeled) more trouble than they are worth. But now they are here, sitting and staring at me accusingly from the bowl on the dining room table, so I eat them. Surprisingly I have fallen in love with tangerines this winter, savoring their very tangerine-ness, like a burst of sunshine in my mouth -- pow! I come alive just thinking about it. Today I roasted a pan of beets, tossing them in olive oil and sea salt. Now there is a sentence I have never written before. I also roasted a pan of purple onions, small potatoes, Japanese sweet potatoes (what are those exactly anyway?) and two whole heads of garlic, just because we had them. I'll eat these roasted vegetables for breakfast and lunches over the next few days, surely shaking me out of any food ruts I might have gotten myself in during the last 35 years.
It's also been the winter of fantastic reading
. Over the holidays, I read Run
by Ann Patchett and Bridge of Sighs
by Richard Russo, both memorable books, something I don't often find. A friend sent me The Used World
by Haven Kimmel, a book I found quite wonderful. I am in a book group of local music teachers who this month read Piano Lessons
by Noah Adams, another book I enjoyed very much, if for no other reason it gave me new insights into the minds of adult students dabbling in music lessons. Last fall our group read The Sparrow
and Children of God
by Maria Doria Russell, two books that stunned me and kept me thinking for weeks. When my dad was here for a recent visit, I loaned him The Sparrow
and he read it in 24 hours. It's really that good.
And although I write a blog, I must admit that I don't much read them. (My husband told me for years that I should write one, to which I would repeated ask, "Now what is a blog, anyway?") However, last year Matt discovered a blog which now I read regularly and savor, although (or maybe because) it isn't about music. Indeed, orangette
is about food, and written by someone you'd like to have cook for you. Regularly. I sigh often when I read it, however, because it appears this woman, who must be several years younger than I am, manages to cook real meals and play in the kitchen on a regular basis. Last night, dining alone, I ate: two slices of brie; a handful of peanuts, cracking the shells over the sink; two tangerines; three cookies. I can cook, and I am even halfway decent, but too often don't bother. Ms. Orangette makes me want to don an apron and start baking biscuits, something that isn't likely to happen anytime soon.
This winter I have also been able to play some fabulous music, working on a recital with a flutist, Jerome Jim
. For the last month, we have been rehearsing the Fauré violin sonata, (transcribed for flute) and the "Histoire du Tango" by Piazzola, both fabulous pieces with wonderful piano parts that have demanded and absorbed my attention for weeks. Following this recital I have an empty window of time in terms of performances, something that hasn't occurred in the recent past. I am determined to claim it and learn some solo music that has been on my wish list for some time. I've been working on Chopin's Nocturne in D-Flat, but after this recital, I'm going to tackle his G Minor Ballade, Barber's Excursions, and Haydn's F Minor Variations. I don't have performances in mind for any of these works, but if I don't learn them I can't ever perform them, so I'm going with the "build it and they will come" theory. Last year my resolution was to go on more hikes
, seeing as we live in great hiking country. My interest in hiking took a 25-year detour after having been dragged up every mountain in Colorado as a kid, lugging baloney sandwiches, which I detested. But after living here several years, I found myself interested in seeing more of this spectacular, unusual landscape and saw hiking as a good, cheap recreational activity for my otherwise rather indoor-centered life. After making this resolution, my husband and I went on two hikes last year, which was two more hikes than any other year, but still nothing to write home about. Already this year I have lured my husband, brother-in-law, and nephew up into the foothills, and then also my father when he came to visit, telling him it was revenge for all those childhood hikes. "But you were young and I am old," he told me, which is true but didn't affect my plans. During our hike on a snowy and icy path, I fell five (Five!
) times, which once again is an actual number and not an exaggeration, leaving me bruised and sore for days. "That'll teach you," he said.
Even my teaching is forging new tracks, as I am making more of a concerted effort to teach new music, and to organize my materials better. The impulses to organize come and go in my life. Over the years, I have learned to heed them when they arrive, as they are usually a sign that a new burst of creative energy is bubbling to the surface. "I spend a lot of time getting organized to be creative," I read somewhere. That's it exactly, for I spend a great deal of time getting organized to be creative, even recognizing the urge to be organized as something that might have a creative root. Several weeks ago, after almost a year of being nagged at, I held a rhythm and movement class based on Dalcroze ideas for music teachers. I sent out the e-mail announcement about the class secretly suspecting no one would come. Instead, my living room was full of eager movers and shakers, so much so that I have scheduled classes monthly through May. It's been good for me to get out of not only my eating ruts, but my teaching ruts.
So, in little microscopic ways, we are shedding old skin around here, making us healthier and opening up our minds a bit to a new perspective. Of course, this health angle hasn't contributed to a real improvement in the state of our health (see "colds" above), but big changes often start small, spiraling the contents of our lives in a whole new direction. Cutivating a new-found love of warm roasted beets isn't a bad place to start.
January 12th, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
"I'm going out to visit the worms," my husband announced to me. That this sentence would come out of his mouth shocks me, but provides tangible evidence of how we have changed over the years. Matt certainly has never had a hippy phase, never had a passion for outdoor activities: camping, hiking, canoeing were not part of his childhood. In the past, certainly, he was of the mindset that having the air-conditioning turned down low in the summer and the heat turned up high in the winter was a good thing, as it kept one comfortable. He was known to drive to the grocery store that was one half-block from our Texas apartment.
We have both learned over the years that we are not the same people we were fifteen years ago when we started this courtship. "Where is the girl I married?" Matt says, when he witnesses behaviors that ten years ago I would never have considered. Thankfully, in spite of these changes, maybe even in part because of these changes, we still like each other. Even more importantly, we still love each other.
This fall, we began a compost pile. As the greener member of this relationship, I had been wanting one for a while, but hadn't figured out the details of how it would work in our small backyard. One day Matt read in the newspaper about an outfit that sold worms for composting and even gave easy directions as to how anybody could start their own compost systems. Anytime "anyone" can do something we figure we can handle it. He got intrigued, sent away for the worms, and set up compost bins in the garage. Surprising both of us, he has taken over the composting chores completely. Maybe this is because when left to my own devices I throw actual whole pumpkins into the compost pile, stressing the worms out completely.
This was also the year we bought two rain barrels to catch the precious rainwater that falls from the roof. We hung a clothesline in the backyard. We ride our bicycles most places--even to the grocery store and to pick up the weekly produce we buy from the local farmers’ co-op. Every week we look forward to the e-mail from the farmer
telling us what this week's produce will be. The co-op program has changed the way we eat, forcing us to figure out what to do with things like a pound of spinach or a bundle of Swiss chard, but we love the culinary adventure. I love riding the mile to the storefront on my bicycle with the three baskets, and filling my tote bags with apples and lettuces and tangerines. Three apples. One pound of potatoes. Two onions
, read the signs above the baskets and coolers of food. We pay for the food on-line, and check off our name at the door--walking around the room and picking out the fruit and vegetables is on the honor system--no one inspects our bags at the door. I love this dignified ritual, even while recognizing its rarity in our suspicious and overly accountable world.
The truth is that my world is very small--consisting mostly of places I can get to on my bicycle or on the bus. We have a car, and we use it, but don't choose to drive places if there is a reasonable option in the neighborhood. I wonder sometimes if my world hasn't gotten too small in the past several years, as I work more and more from home. Last week I had a luncheon I had to attend. The restaurant was across town -- one of those anonymous loud chain places with long waits, big crowds and a busy parking lot. This one even had the added crime of being located on an access road off the interstate: a triple whammy of strikes against it. It was right at noontime, the highway was at a standstill, the exit I needed to take was backed up for several miles. My stress level was through the roof by the time I got there, late of course. Afterwards, trying to get to an appointment, I waited through four lights before I could turn left, drove through horrendous traffic, and was ten minutes late. Maybe my miniscule world isn't so bad after all.
In the great sense my world isn't really that small: after all, we travel a great deal and read voraciously--both activities that expand one's world exponentially. But locally I live thoroughly in my neighborhood, resenting things that make me get in the car and face traffic and crowded parking lots. I know that I am lucky in that I can make these choices, that much of the world doesn't have these options, that for many people commutes and traffic jams are a daily and unavoidable part of their lives. I cannot claim any superiority for building my tiny green world -- there are still too many areas of my life where I produce a larger carbon footprint than I should.
Lately we have been having computer woes. We both have laptops that are several years old and that we are perfectly happy with. However, it seems that in the last few months the technological world has left us behind. Repeatedly, we are running into problems with programs that just a few months ago worked just fine. Suddenly we don't have a compatible system with the rest of the world, or not enough memory, or for some reason don't speak the right languages. This frustrates me, this idea that overnight we might become obsolete and be forced to start over with new more powerful machines, when, really, we were perfectly happy before. In spite of my good intentions, I find myself getting swept up into thinking maybe I "need" a new machine with its fancier updates. I grow nervous when I travel without my cell phone, although we only broke down and bought cell phones a year ago, living contentedly without one until then. I check e-mail too often, allowing the distraction to break up my day and my rhythm. Unfortunately, I am susceptible as the next person to the pull and the force of the modern world.
I'm thinking about all this as we begin a new year, wondering how to find peace with my frustrations with technology, trying to discern what is actually important and necessary to function in today's world, and what might be a lovely but unnecessary upgrade. In the meantime, I am going out to visit the worms and to pile another load of last season's leaves over them. Perhaps this will remind me that the answer is not in how noble and righteous my composting, bicycling, organic eating habits might make me, but in how peacefully--traffic jams, computer woes, outdated technology in general--I balance it all.
December 22nd, 2007 :: Ordinary Days
“Do you think it would help if I got two calendars?’ I ask Matt. We are at Borders, and I am making my annual visit to the calendar aisle. Matt looks at me rather exasperatedly. If rolling eyes made a sound, he would be making it.
The yearly calendar expedition is somewhat of a joke, for as far back as I can remember I have been unsuccessful at keeping a calendar. The calendar that I need, no one designs. I need one that allows me to view the month as a whole, fulfilling that strong need of mine to see the bird’s eye view of my schedule, but that allows me significant room to jot notes into individual days. I need it small enough to transport easily, but big enough to make me feel that the days might expand at my command. I want pretty pictures. I need random blank space to jot down miscellaneous thoughts that don’t have a deadline or even a date attached, but will of their own accord provide the thread through my weeks and months. I don’t need the days to be divided into neat hours, like birds on a fence, because I never structure my life that carefully. My life is already overly organized by regular appointments or, more specifically, by lessons and rehearsals. I don’t need to write down that I see Ellie on Mondays at eight in the morning, or that George comes at 3:30 on Thursdays. What I need to write down are the extras: the extra lessons or rehearsals or doctors appointments or coffee dates with friends that fill out the rest of my hours. There aren’t many extras in a week, filled already to capacity with my work life, but still I need somewhere to write these things down.
Some years, I have bought a blank book and created by own calendar, which only made me the object of ridicule when I would take it out in front of colleagues and friends.
Last year I tried one of those monthly calendars that hang on the wall with pictures of cats sunning in the Greek islands. At the very least, I thought it would make me happy to look at these photos. It has, but it hasn’t solved my scheduling problems, because the calendar stays at home, while I often need to make appointments when I am out in the world. Countless times I have gotten home, gone to write down some lunch or hair appointment and found that I was already busy on that date and had to start over. Hence the thinking that maybe two calendars would solve the problem. One monthly calendar with pretty pictures of the Greek islands (I do like the Greek islands….), and a smaller one organized by weeks to carry with me, but with enough space to write down things as I need to. With this plan, I’d also need to carry a blank sketchbook, not for sketching, but to scribble down miscellaneous things as they come to me: grocery lists, phone calls to make, the opening sentence of an essay. It’s all very complicated, and evidence from years past tells me that this new plan may be futile. Chances are that, come March, I will once again be flying by the seat of my pants.
It is not only my annual visit to the calendar aisle that marks this time of year, but also hundreds of other small things. With the leaves gone and the trees bare, every night at 5:00 I can now see the mountains turn the Sandia (watermelon) pink of their name. Teaching in the late afternoon, I wait for this moment of color before I pull the curtains shut by the piano. It bookmarks my day in a comforting way, and reminds me that there is a great big world beyond the small slice of my existence. Like in so many places around the country, it’s been unseasonably warm this fall, my students wearing shorts deep into November. Even last week Laurie arrived for her early morning lesson in shorts. “Aren’t you cold?” I asked, shivering at the sight of her. “You know what climate we live in, don’t you?” “We live in the desert,” she announced with a “who knows? Anything is possible around here” tone in her voice. It is true. Anything is possible.
But today it is cold and raining, a cozy day for staying indoors. For the first time in recent history, December isn’t the mad rush to the finish line it usually is. I have no more recitals this year, and I’m not playing juries, liberating huge chunks of time and energy. True, there are the extra gigs here and there: religious services of various stripes, Christmas parties and the like, but these require no preparation: just throw on a pretty dress and go. When I was commenting to a good friend about the sudden empty hours in my schedule, Julianne asked, “So you’re on the downhill side of the semester?” “No,” I responded with glee in my voice, “I am on the other side. It’s not the downhill side, it is off the hill completely.”
Matt is less quick to give me any credit for the wisdom or good judgment I might have shown in arranging the more relaxed schedule I now find myself in. Several weeks back, we were returning home from a recital I had played. “I might have had another recital to play tomorrow night,” I said to Matt. “Wasn’t it smart of me to turn that down?” “Smart in that taking the gig would have been proof of insanity, sure,” he responded.
I don’t care. As I sit here with holiday music on my stereo, a cookie jar full of gingerbread at my side (thank God for students with mothers who bake!), and a whole half an hour to call my own, I feel a sudden deep contentment. The house is decorated as much as it will be this year. I have stars hanging from every arch and window. Pots of forced paperwhites just this week have begun blooming, filling the air with their subtle fragrance. Glass icicles drip across the fireplace, chandelier, and French doors. There are wreaths on the windows, and I’ve hung tiny white lights outside around all the doors and inside across the mantle and around the kitchen window. In between lessons, I plug in lights, causing one high school student to say, “Amy, I love coming to your house. It’s like a winter wonderland.” However, compared to most of the world, we don’t do much—even our gift giving is minimal. I realize that in confessing this, I am owning up to something that makes me Ebenezer Scrooge, but there it is. In a society where we all have way too much stuff, it is a small act of rebellion not to add to the over-consumption of the season.
This year, I made a mobile. My 91-year-old grandmother used to crochet white lacy angels and bells made out of thread. She is in poor health, her days of crocheting are long behind her, and the dozen angels and bells I have from her are showing signs of wear. They no longer stand up reliably, especially when faced with the challenge thrown by living with two curious cats. So this year, I decided to hang them off a mobile. When I mentioned this to Matt, he responded, “So, you’re telling me that in your spare time you are going to become an aerodynamic engineer and make mobiles?” It’s hard to make a mobile, I discovered, even after I found and bought the basic structure. But after hours of fussing, my mobile hangs above the piano, perfectly balanced and slowly spinning.
Unfortunately, I have never seen a craft project that didn’t look like fun. The only thing that keeps me from indulging more in the aisles of Michael’s is the fear that I will be labeled not “artistic,” but “crafty,” which makes me shudder. (It is a similar fear that makes me turn down a recently offered gift of a kitten: the fear I will be known only as the crazy woman with the cats.) But last weekend, my friend Lora and I, armed with a hot glue gun (a dangerous sight indeed), managed to decorate a wreath with dried cranberries and lights and hang it opposite the chile pepper wreath in the courtyard, thus fulfilling my crafty urges for another season.
In the studio, we are busy learning Christmas carol arrangements, students practicing more eagerly and willingly in this busy month than any other time. There seems to be a universal love of “Carol of the Bells,” which mystifies me. Even my most advanced student, who is working on a Beethoven sonata and the Gershwin Preludes, has a “Carol of the Bells” that he has arranged to his great satisfaction. “Have you come up with an opportunity for me to play ‘Carol of the Bells’ anywhere?” he asked me one week recently. “Because you know my version is awesome.” It is quite good, I must confess, an ad hoc arrangement stolen partly off some recording, I suspect, but nevertheless his work and creativity to put it together. In spite of his enthusiasm, however, I have not been racking my brain for performance opportunities for his “Carol of the Bells.” Clearly, next year I need to do so.
In the meantime, it is getting dark. Grey and cloudy today, the mountains won’t be turning pink this afternoon. Instead it is time to pull curtains, turn on lamps, plug in lights, welcoming another afternoon of teaching, complete with another arrangement of “Carol of the Bells.” Underneath me, the cats are curled up against the floorboard heaters, the tea kettle whistles on the stove. With pleasures big and small, we await the new year to come.
November 2nd, 2007 :: Ordinary Days
Fall has arrived to New Mexico. After a long hot summer, it has snuck in, creeping through the state. I’d almost given up on fall, drowning as I have been lately in work. Until last weekend, there was no reason to change over my closet or dig out boots and sweaters. I’ve barely taken time to appreciate the final roses of the season. The trees outside my windows are changing slowly, sheepishly almost. It looks like we won’t have the brilliant gold aspen and cottonwoods this year. Too many leaves are simply drying up, turning brown and falling off, reminding me of the raking to come without the gift of the colors.
And yet, the season hasn’t been without its rituals. For the past four years, we have set aside a weekend in October to go to Taos. We time this trip to happen during one of the Balloon Fiesta weekends. The first year we lived in New Mexico, we were very excited about Balloon Fiesta, but after experiencing first-hand the crowds and hard work involved with ballooning, now we are eager to avoid this event. In its place, a long weekend in Taos is heavenly. There is usually more foliage color up north. The nights are always cooler—this trip usually marks the first time we wear boots and jackets every fall. We stay in the historic Taos Inn, just off the plaza, with creaky old rooms and ceilings so low we can almost reach up and touch them. There is a kiva fireplace in every room and a great bar with heavenly coffee and alcohol concoctions. During the day we shop, sit in coffee houses, take long walks, and maybe even stumble down a trail or two (our version of hiking.). We have favorite places we eat—The Trading Post
, Old Blinking Light
—and this year found a great new restaurant—Graham’s
-- which will certainly become a yearly haunt.
Every year, this weekend comes at a bad time. We always have too much to do and taking a couple of days away feels like a real sacrifice. I have never been to Taos when I wasn’t stressed out about something, and this time was no different. But this annual trip reminds me why we love living in this state. The drive north is spectacular. We always stop at Vivac Winery to replenish our wine rack and indulge in their hand-made chocolates. It has become important to us, this yearly getaway. I hate to imagine a fall without it.
Back home, we find touchstones where we can. I have started baking our favorite cranberry apple pie and have set pumpkins out on the adobe walls of our courtyard. Pumpkins look just right propped against this rounded architecture. We buy our yearly quota of roasted green chile, filling our house for days with the intense fragrance. Even after only living here a few years, I associate the smell of green chile with autumn. This year I hung a wreath of dried red chiles on a window. Usually I would resist adopting such clichés, but now I cook with chile regularly—it isn’t a stretch at hang chile ristras outside to use later in the kitchen.
The gardening chores are slowing down, the plants beginning to hibernate. I still have to buy my yearly fix of bulbs so I can greet the spring with tulips, but mostly the time I would spend outside working is now mine. After months of cold weather, I am always itching to get out in the garden, but by the end of the summer, I am more than ready to come indoors for the winter. These natural cycles are good for my soul, even as they surprise me. Who would have thought that I had latent gardening instincts buried inside a perfectly happy city girl all these years? On every side of my family there are farmers. Those grandparents must have sent down strong genes through the DNA code.
Last night was my fall studio recital. It is always a stretch to get ready for a recital this early in the semester, even with my students taking more or less regular summer lessons. This one came even earlier than usual, it seemed. Almost every kid could have used another week or two (month or two?) to get ready. But as I know all too well, performances arrive whether or not we are ready, so I tried to use this rushed performance as a teaching opportunity. I wanted students and parents to think about the process of becoming musicians, not the fleeting importance of this particular recital. To this end, the students made “memory maps” of their recital pieces—a good idea even without an upcoming performance, but a critical step when trying to cram music quickly. I hung these colorful artistic renderings of their pieces in the reception area, and let the high school students use their maps during their performances, each of them tacking them to an easel after they finished playing, providing the audience with changing visuals throughout the recital. I did the same with my recital piece; the display grew more and more crowded as the recital went on. I had parents do readings interspersed with the performances: Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water, about children and creativity; Noah Adam’s Piano Lessons, about learning to play Schumann’s Traümerei. Three of us read poems: Billy Collins’ “Piano Lessons” and poems by Michael McFee and Stephen Dobyns.
All and all, the evening went well. The readings were a big hit, the performance maps a helpful safety net in several cases, and the performances came together better than I had hoped. I heard things—I always hear things--that will need my attention over the next few months. We need to take more care to subtle differences in dynamics. Students still need to put more space around their performances—although no kid actually stood up while playing the last note in their hurry to bow, something I have seen all too often in the past. No doubt about it, if we would have had a few more weeks, I could have fixed some of these things, but there is never enough time. Someday, I may get better at working far enough ahead that even the fall recital doesn’t feel like a push, but I doubt it. It is the process of becoming musicians, artists, creative beings that is most important, not these particular pieces, I told the parents last night. “Tonight is not so much about this music, although it too has its place in our growth as human beings. Instead, tonight is about the process of becoming musicians. It is about the relationships we form with composers, music and each other in the presence of this grand instrument we play.”
Madeleine L’Engle wrote in Walking on Water, “We write, we make music, we draw pictures, because we are listening for meaning, feeling for healing . . . In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.”
There is no doubt that I will get to December and wonder where my fall went, wonder how these glorious autumn days ripe with promise managed to escape. While my attempts at filling my life with comforting touchstones help, some days it doesn’t seem to be enough. Too often I only focus the ways I am pulled in too many directions, and don’t stop to notice the small bright joys right in front of me: the dark red tree in my courtyard, the piles of gourds at the farmers market, the warmth of the furnace when it comes on for the first time one chilly morning. I even overlook the significance of the just-beginning student who after his first recital excitedly told me, “Miss Amy, after the recital was over I felt like I could play my piece even better than before!” Blinded by all I have to do, I lose sight of all these little things that make up my world.
Yesterday I attended a pumpkin carving party hosted by some of my young students. “Well, Ellie, do you think I should give up my career as a pianist to be a pumpkin carver?” I asked one kid as we surveyed my rather pitiful results. “No,” she answered tactfully, “Because you can be a pianist EVERY DAY, but only a pumpkin carver once a year.”
Every day: “…we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.”
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org