April 21st, 2013 :: Extraordinary Days
Monday morning we got word that a dear friend of ours had a baby boy. He was healthy and beautiful; the mother, father and older sister were all overjoyed to finally welcome him into the world.
Several hours later I received two text messages. The first was a photo of the newborn. The second was news of the Boston bombing.
I had already been thinking about Boston all morning. Hoping to make a trip back east this summer, I had been planning to call a friend in Boston whom I want to visit and to look at some possible dates. After hearing the news, I didn’t call Julia. It didn’t seem right just then to plan the future. When tragedy strikes, we need to honor the moment, sit with the terror, be present with the grief, if only for a short time.
There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t miss living in Boston. Sometimes in my mind I wander down Commonwealth Avenue from our old apartment in Kenmore Square all the way to the Public Gardens. To counter insomnia, I count swan boats paddling slowly across the pond. I wander down the long tree-lined sidewalk alongside Beacon Street through the Common on the way to Park Street T stop. I putter down Charles Street to our other apartment on the backside of Beacon Hill. To entertain myself, I invent stories of the people who might live in the brownstones. I imagine them to be interesting, cultured people; blue-blooded Bostonians of the first order: they are art curators at the Gardner Museum or professors at Harvard. They throw great dinner parties and read every one of those books I can see in their libraries through the windows. They go to Symphony. They spend summers on the Cape.
Other times I remember walking along the path next to the Charles River, passing the Memorial Shell where the Boston Pops play every 4th of July. On late summer nights, we used to take a bottle of wine to a nearby boat dock and watch the sun set. I walked across the Mass Ave and Longfellow bridges on the way to a T stop in Cambridge more times than I could count. I can still see the crew teams, out for an early morning practice, cutting across the water. There are always dozens of sailboats in my mind. My piano technician here in Albuquerque learned to sail on the Charles River when he was in graduate school. Why, I think now, did I not learn to sail when we lived in Boston?
I know every inch of those blocks of Boylston Street that have been the subject of the news and our scrutiny since Monday afternoon. I whiled away countless hours in the Starbucks near where one of the bombs exploded. It was there that I often skipped church with the New York Times or daydreamed in one of the big chairs next to the picture windows that overlooked the sidewalk. I marked time by watching the duck boats full of tourists go by. I wrote the first draft of an article for American Music Teacher in that Starbucks and drank countless cappuccinos.
Many Sunday nights -- when not at St. Starbucks -- I attended services at Trinity Church in Copley Square with a motley group of congregants all seeking sanctuary and meaning: students, tourists, professors, the homeless. I have checked out dozens of books from the Boston Public Library across the street. Copley Hotel was worth ducking into at Christmas time, if only to gawk at the opulence. In Back Bay Station, I caught hundreds of trains out to the suburbs to my church and teaching jobs. I met Matt at his favorite Starbucks at Boylston and Berkeley too many times to remember. Waiting for Matt, I would putter up and down Newbury Street, window-shopping in the designer boutiques. I once spontaneously bought the greatest pair of red boots ever made in a shoe shop near Arlington. My favorite haunt on the way home from work was Trident Booksellers, which is still my idea of the perfect bookshop/café. Once I sat out a late spring nor’easter at a table there in a bay window, drinking tea and writing.
Living in Boston during and after 9/11 meant that a kind of suspended anxiety became familiar, almost the new normal. Because Boston was closely linked to the 9/11 tragedy, rumors and threats to that city circulated for months. We flew out of Logan the day after the shoe bomber flew in, part of the first wave of people that will forever be asked to remove their shoes at security. Watching the news Monday night sent us back to those horrible days after September 11th, 2001, only this time instead of sitting in the middle of the terror, we watched from afar, the distance both comforting and frustrating at the same time. Without even knowing it, all these years we have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. And now it has.
We didn’t know anyone who was likely to be at the Boston Marathon Monday afternoon. My sister-in-law Mary is the only person I know who might run a marathon on the spur of the moment, and she was Morocco, not Boston. This event shouldn’t be personal for us; except, of course, it is.
In Wishful Thinking Frederick Buechner writes, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.”
Monday evening Matt sent this quote to our friends, the new parents. Since Monday, I have thought more about this little child that entered the world on such a complicated day than I have about the victims in Boston. A day that is split open, raw and wounded, seems a particularly vulnerable place to begin one’s life. But precious, too, and rich with the possibility of healing.
Some days I would trade every precious part of my current life—the cute house and garden, the lazy cats and feisty betta fish, the beautiful grand piano in the living room, every last familiar and dear student—to go back to Boston. To go back to living on the edge: the tiny 350 square-foot apartment, the crowded commutes on the T, the hurried walks down Marlborough dashing to another rehearsal or lesson. I’d take even the fear again. But as tempting as it may be to chuck my whole life and run racing back to Boston, the real answer, the difficult but honest response to Monday’s events isn’t to give up on my world, but to embrace it. To accept that it includes new babies and great sadnesses all at once. People are born and people die, and the poignancy of just that is what makes it holy.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
-dedicated to Liz, Seth, Anna & baby Jacob. xoxo
February 17th, 2013 :: Extraordinary Days
Thursday Charlie came dragging into his lesson. “I’m so tired,” he sighed. “I had to stay up until ten o’clock last night doing homework.” I raised my eyebrows in alarm. The child is seven. Later I mentioned it to his mother. She rolled her eyes. “Charlie is channeling a more stressful life than he actually has. He was in bed by eight last night.”
The kids might be channeling more stressful lives, but we don’t need to. Ours is stressful enough already. Matt has hired an assistant at work and still he is drowning. He has taken on additional responsibilities at church. He is working with a choir at the University of New Mexico for a colleague on sabbatical this semester. He is conducting the New Mexico Philharmonic next weekend. One job, two jobs, three jobs, four. My head spins as he comes and goes.
At home, I only dream of an assistant. The once-every-three-weeks housekeeper is not enough. I’ve let the garden go un-watered all winter. It may be dead. In the last month, two fish have died. I try not to read this as a bad omen. My head aches constantly. I haven’t called my mother in weeks. The cats, neglected and ignored, whine and fuss for attention.
We were with my sister and brother-in-law on New Year’s Eve. They celebrate a tradition where at midnight everyone draws a slip of paper from a bowl. On the slip of paper is a word that is supposed to be your word for the year. My word was “Support.”
In between rehearsals and lessons, I try to keep food in the refrigerator and the laundry done. I try not to complain about when Matt schedules another late night rehearsal. I try not to mention the fact we haven’t had dinner together in what feels like weeks. I make the coffee in the morning, and hand my tired husband a steaming cup. My word is “Support.” One job, two jobs, three jobs, four…
But this week the British came to lift our spirits and make us sing. VOCES8, the brilliant a cappella group from England, kicked off Matt’s Music at St John’s concert series and then spent the week in residency in twelve schools around Albuquerque before giving a final concert Friday night. “Is there a cost for these concerts?” someone asked Matt. “No, because St. John’s is awesome.” He responded. “St John’s is awesome’ could be the byline to this week,” I muttered under my breath. Actually, now that I think about it, the more correct byline to the week should be: Matt is awesome. (One job, two jobs, three jobs, four…)
Or maybe, when I’m not cranky and grouchy I will remember that’s the byline to my life.
In the previous months, as Matt has been in touch with our friends in VOCES8 about these arrangements, Paul, one of the leaders of the group, expressed their enthusiasm for the idea about spending a week in New Mexico. “Oh good! More gin and Sondheim at the Greers’,” he said, referring to the evening during their last visit that ended with a three-hour sing-along over martinis around our piano.
Let’s just say those Brits do not only sing like angels, but party hard. After hours at the piano this week, I feel like I could be VOCES8’s pianist.
VOCES8: The only a cappella group that travels with a pianist.
Only I don’t want to travel. There is someone at home who needs my support.
So maybe it could be:
VOCES8: The only a cappella group that could travel with a pianist, if she wanted to travel.
That’s the kind of catchy title marketers love.
If we had to pick one favorite thing that VOCES8 sings, it might be “Only You,” an arrangement of the early 1980’s pop hit. I loved the original; the kids in VOCES8 are too young to remember it (sigh), but their version is better anyway. On Valentine’s night, they stood in our living room and sang it.
Looking from a window above, it's like a story of love
Can you hear me
Came back only yesterday
Moving farther away
Want you near me…
At night, exhausted and beyond conversation, Matt and I lie in bed wrapped in each other’s arms. “Coming back here every night is the only thing getting me through my days,” he says to me. One job, two jobs, three jobs, four….Ours is not a young love any more. “Our love is drinking age,” I told him recently. He laughed. “I don’t know if that is a poem or a bad country and western song.”
This is gonna take a long time
And I wonder what's mine
Can't take no more
Wonder if you'll understand
It's just the touch of your hand
Behind a closed door…
Yesterday morning, we said goodbye to our friends in VOCES8. No more gin and Sondheim for a while, although our living room has certainly seen some good evenings over the years. But late at night, we channel the Brits, singing softly in bed, lyrics floating in and out of our subconscious….
All I needed was the love you gave
All I needed was another day
And I’ll I ever knew
November 25th, 2012 :: Extraordinary Days
(Note to the reader:
The event that is told below made me so tired that I could not muster up the energy to even write the story. Instead, I asked (OK demanded) that my best friend Lora write this tale of woe. In return, I promised that she could become my first “guest blogger”. She seemed pleased by this new title, and so mustered up the will to compose the following. I did, however, edit it freely, which mostly means that I tried to soften Lora’s tendency towards swearing like a sailor.)
For the 3rd time in the last few years, Amy and I found ourselves on an Epic Hike. As was the case with the previous Epic Hikes (The Ladies Hike and The Damn Bears Hike for those keeping track) we had not intentionally set out on an Epic Hike but, rather, we had intended to complete a Fairly Difficult Hike. And in case you are wondering how we define a Fairly Difficult Hike I will say that during the four years that Amy and I have been hiking together we have developed a sophisticated hike difficulty rating system based entirely upon the timing of the breakfast that will follow the hike. Ratings are as follows:
- Easy Hike: a nature walk featuring wild flowers and chirping birds. Anticipated breakfast time: 9:30 a.m.
- Fairly Difficult Hike: a tough workout requiring actual hiking gear, say, a backpack, snacks, fluids, and proper footwear. Anticipated breakfast time: 11:30 a.m.
- Epic Hike: a near-death experience involving errors in judgment, swearing, physical pain and mental torment. Breakfast is not likely as the hikers will be too traumatized to do anything other than go home and collapse.
Alas, the Fairly Difficult Hike and, in fact, the entire day did not unfold as we had hoped on account of what I, at the time, referred to as “The Fatal Flaw” in our plan. I now realize that our plan involved more than a single flaw and, in truth, none of them actually proved fatal so moving forward I will refer to them collectively as “The Non-Fatal Flaws” and I will keep track of them throughout this account, in part because I am sure that the total will be astounding and also because I hope that by emphasizing them I will reinforce my firm conviction to never hike again.
That last statement may seem like an overstatement but, really, it isn’t. I am making this statement more than a week after the Epic Hike, which, from this point forward, I will refer to as The Hike From Hell because that’s what it was. More than one week after the fact I still think that I need not ever hike again because, really, The Hike from Hell monumentally sucked.
Having said that, Amy and I did not realize the extent to which this hike sucked until after we were rescued from the top of the mountain and were regaling our rescuer with a dramatic retelling of The Hike From Hell. At one point our rescuer interrupted the dramatic retelling to say, “At least you didn’t see a bear,” to which we both exclaimed, “Oh yeah! The bear!” Amy’s prompt follow-up to this was, “You know you’ve been on a really bad hike when you’re 20 minutes into the story and haven’t gotten around to mentioning the bear. It’s quite telling if the bear is not the headline, but only a footnote.”
But as is often the case, I am getting ahead of myself. Perhaps the beginning might be a better place to begin.
Amy and I had not been on a serious hike in over a year, which, not coincidentally, is exactly how long it had taken us to forget the horrors of the last hike. In fact, our initial plan had been to make a second stab at that same route, this time without the unintentional five-mile detour that rendered us hopelessly lost, sucked the life out of both of us and eradicated every ounce of confidence we may have once possessed in the NM Forest Service.
A few days prior to our most recent hiking misadventure, however, we learned that that trailhead had been closed on account of hungry, cranky bears and so we set about planning an entirely different hike. After some deliberation, we settled upon the following Fairly Difficult Hike: We would park at the base of the tram and hike approximately 3 miles through the foothills to the base of the Pino Trail. We would then hike up the Pino Trail to the Crest. After reaching the Crest we would pause to enjoy magnificent vistas before hiking a few miles, strolling on mostly even ground and reveling in the splendor of nature’s majesty until we reached the tram. We would then take the tram down to the car awaiting us below and would move on to a well-earned breakfast of pancakes and papas (a heavenly combination of scrambled eggs, green chiles and potatoes), basking in the glory of having accomplished such a challenging hike. That was the plan, which, as is so often the case, bore absolutely no resemblance to the reality that followed.
The day began nicely enough with my picking Amy up, on time, at 5:30 am. (Yes, that would be 5:30 a.m.) Neither Amy or I particularly enjoy hiking in the foothills, in large part because they are so boring they make road trips across Kansas seem stimulating, and so we drove somewhat illegally into the closed tram parking lot (Non-Fatal Flaw #1) through the exit lane (this would not have been our first choice but the entrance was barricaded), parked at the base of the tram at 6:00 a.m. and began our hike in the pitch black darkness of the predawn morning. Rather miraculously and without any helpful signage whatsoever, we landed on the correct foothills trail and several miles later found ourselves at the base of the Pino Trail.
The day was brightening as we started up the Pino Trail and yes, I do mean up. For those of you who are not familiar with this particular trail it is 4.7 miles long and involves about 2800 feet of elevation gain which is to say that it pretty much goes straight up the freakin’ mountain. That’s right. Unlike some other trails that involve more gradual inclines and switchbacks, the Pino Trail just goes up. For 4.7 miles. Straight up.
Very early into this part of the hike I began experiencing pain in my right foot. Nothing about this should have surprised me. I do, after all, spend much of my life in 4-inch heels, walking on mostly flat surfaces in relative comfort. In stark contrast, this hike found me wearing flat-soled hiking boots with feet angled sharply up because, as I have already mentioned, that is the only direction in which the Pino Trail goes. Up.
The pain soon spread to the other parts of my body that were participating in the goddawful process of propelling my body up the mountain. In a moment of delirium I flashed back to high school Biology II and began to imagine lactic acid coursing through my body and poisoning my muscles. I then began to wish for death until I remembered that my boyfriend is a licensed massage therapist. And so I continued on, hoping to catch up with Amy who was bounding ahead (like the half mountain goat she must have been in a previous life), although, to her credit, she did pause from time to time to make sure that I had not died.
Despite my valiant efforts not to bitch about the pain, I bitched about the pain. At some point, Amy and I agreed that we had crossed the not-so-obvious line where it made more sense to continue hiking up rather than to turn back (Non-fatal Flaw #2). I actually felt encouraged when Amy pointed out one of the tram towers way off in the distance. Prior to this I had felt overwhelmed and, in truth, lost because I couldn’t see where the trail ended and couldn’t figure out where we were going (other than up, that is.) Seeing the tram tower provided a great sense of relief because even though it was far away I knew that we were eventually going to end up somewhere near there. For the first time since embarking upon this godforsaken trail I felt anchored, rooted, and, indeed, even somewhat hopeful.
At the same time I didn’t happen to notice any tram cars travelling over the tower and so I said to Amy, “We probably should have checked on-line to make sure that the tram is running.” (Non-fatal Flaw #3. I should note that this was perhaps the biggest flaw of the entire day.) At the time, however, these were fleeting thoughts for my attention was mostly focused on continuing up the Pino Trail. Soon thereafter we were passed by a lunatic who was, get this, RUNNING up the mountain. We stopped him to ask if he was familiar with the trail and if so, how much further until we reached the Crest.
During the brief conversation that followed Amy and I shared a few realizations:
- We were about 1 mile from the end of the Pino Trail; this was good news and, in fact, the last good news we received for quite a while.
- What we had been referring to as the Crest is really the Crest Trail (Non-fatal Flaw #4). When people refer to “the Crest” they are generally referring to one of the highest points of the mountain. The place where the Pino Trail intersects with the Crest Trail is most definitely not one of those points.
- The section of the Crest Trail that we would be required to hike in order to reach the tram would not involve strolling on flat ground and reveling in the splendor of nature’s majesty because that section would involve another 1500 feet of elevation gain (Non-fatal Flaw #5).
- That section to the actual crest is more than 3 miles long, which is more than twice as long as we had estimated. (Non-fatal Flaw #6)
Aside from #1. this was all very bad news but, troopers that we are, we continued onward and upwards reaching the top of the Pino Trail a very respectable 2 hours from when we had began. We stopped for snacks and did, in fact, appreciate magnificent vistas until Amy pointed out a strange scratching sound not far from where we sat. During an earlier break Amy had pointed out a strange rustling sound and I had assured her that the creature making the sound wasn’t one of the two most likely to kill us. After all, bears don’t rustle or scratch, they crash through brush and whatever else might be in their way. Stealthy, they are not. And pumas don’t make any sound at all. Rather, they lie in silent wait until just the right moment when they pounce, severing your spinal cord with a single chomp. Still, in spite of this well thought-out logic, we found the strange scratching sound unsettling and decided to get off our butts and continue onward.
Admittedly, the next three miles were not as physically strenuous as the goddawful trail that preceded them. But by this time, however, we had already hiked eight miles (give or take one or two) and were now tramping forward at an elevation 3000 feet higher than where we had begun. As a result, we were tired and so we didn’t do much more than stop and stare when we first heard, then saw a large creature crashing through the brush about 75 feet below the trail we were hiking on. Yup. A bear. And although the bear appeared to be quite eager to get away from us, we didn’t stop and linger for long because it seemed possible that he might have friends nearby who hadn’t yet gotten the memo that they too should flee down the mountain away from us.
And so we continued on, Amy wondering aloud about the protocol one should follow when encountering a bear in the wilderness. In particular, she wondered if one was supposed to climb a tree or run away. I was unable to answer this question because by this point in The Hike from Hell both running and climbing were far beyond my capabilities (hell, simply moving was presenting challenges) so it all seemed moot. If faced with a bear I would have had to throw up my hands and say, “Well screw it. This isn’t how I would have chosen to go but at least this hike is finally coming to an end.” Thankfully, however, I didn’t have say this nor did Amy need to struggle with the decision of whether to climb the tree or run away because we didn’t encounter any additional bears. Instead, we simply struggled on.
After three miles and 1500 hundred more feet of “up” we saw signs of civilization in the distance and realized that we were finally nearing our destination. Hope, nay, joy had begun to seep into my soul until I rounded a corner and saw something that you don’t ever want to see surrounding the tram that is to transport you down the mountain to the car and pancakes awaiting you below: men in hard hats. My heart sank as I realized that the tram was not running. It sank further as I realized that we should, and could, have had this information prior to setting out on our hike.
In Amy’s defense, she didn’t know that there was any possibility that the tram might be closed. She didn’t know that regularly scheduled maintenance occurs and that these service interruptions are noted on the tram website. I, on the other hand, have no such defense. I have hiked up the mountain only to reach the halfway point and to learn from fellow hikers that the tram is closed and that I will be hiking back down. I also know that the tram can be closed during bad weather, a lesson I learned during a most unfortunate hike that began with a lovely day and ended with a blizzard. In short, my life had been affected more than once because the tram should have been running but wasn’t, and so I must confess that I should have known better.
I approached one of the men in hard hats and inquired about the tram, adding desperately that we had just climbed the mountain with plans of taking the tram down. The apparent supervisor overheard this and said, “The tram isn’t operating until 5:00 p.m. It has been closed all week for maintenance. Didn’t you see the signs posted in the parking lot?” (That, admittedly, would have been the parking lot that we had entered, in the dark, illegally.)
Two things kept me from responding, “No, you jackass. We didn’t.” First, it was pretty clear that rudeness would not advance our cause or help us get down the mountain any faster. Second, I could see that Amy was now losing the will to live and so I felt the need to rally, assume a position of leadership and devise a plan for getting us off the fucking mountain. Hiking the 11-or-so miles back down was simply not an option, so I placed a call to the aforementioned boyfriend who agreed to drive the 50-or-so miles from his house to pick us up at the nearest possible place: the Crest House parking lot which is located about 2 miles from where we were. I then assured Amy that our rescuer was on his way and that all we needed to do was hike another two miles in order for the ordeal to come to an end. At which point, she looked at me as if she might burst into tears at any moment. (She is a mountain goat with limited stamina. And a deep love of papas and pancakes.)
We hiked on: Amy in emotional distress, me still in physical distress and while the 2 miles initially seemed an insurmountable obstacle, they passed surprisingly quickly. Soon we were bundled into a comfy SUV and were being driven down the mountain, regaling my boyfriend with a dramatic retelling of The Hike From Hell. As we wound our way down the mountain, enjoying the views from the comfort of the car I looked over at him, love shining in my eyes and said, “Thank you so much for rescuing us. I want to do something really nice to thank you. Perhaps I’ll bake you a pie.” He responded, “Banana cream?” which was a bit of a bummer because I wasn’t entirely serious about baking a pie and, even if I had been, I had only ever baked fruit pies.
Still, after he safely delivered Amy and I to the car we had left at the base of the tram some 8 hours before and after Amy and I had gone to our respective homes to take very long showers, I found myself in the grocery store buying bananas, whole milk, heavy cream and other ingredients required to make a banana cream pie. That night the boyfriend and I sat across from one another at my dining room table eating my first banana cream pie which, by the way, was really, really good. Then again, I was really, really hungry because I had burned about 5000 calories earlier in the day and, as you may have guessed, the breakfast of pancakes and papas that Amy and I had anticipated had not happened.
As I bring this account to a close, I realize that I’m not sure whether these next words refer only to this story or to my hiking days in general but, either way, I’m experiencing a strange sense of relief as I write . . . The End.
(PS: The photos included above have absolutely nothing to do with the hike. The last one, in fact, is of Lora and I hiking through Greenwich Village last August. This kind of hike we will stick to from now on.)
November 18th, 2012 :: Extraordinary Days
The fireworks told me.
It’s been an intense past few months. In addition to my regular teaching and performing work, I have done a fair amount of traveling this fall, giving workshops to teachers and students. I did a lecture/recital on the Art of Collaboration with a colleague and friend for the recent New Mexico MTNA state convention. I have been organizing an upcoming all-duet recital for my students. (If you have never considered an all-duet recital, don’t!) I have been up to my eyeballs in a big writing project. As I said to a friend recently, it’s all good; it’s just a lot.
When life gets crowded and my work begins to weigh heavily on my shoulders and to invade my dreams, I know that it’s time to retreat until I can hear myself think again. In times like this, I need to not just rake leaves, but to watch them fall. I need to turn off the television and turn on my imagination. I need not more time on the piano bench, but more time on my meditation cushion. I silence the phone, and limit email. I swim more laps and read more books. When the creative well is depleted, sometimes I don’t need more stimulation or inspiration to replenish, but less.
Matt was out of town last week, which offered me the perfect opportunity to be a hermit. Although I was as interested as the next person in Tuesday’s election, I wasn’t interested in getting sucked into the drama of the endless news reports. I didn’t want to succumb to the addiction of needing to know what was happening every minute throughout the evening. I suspected that regardless of who was elected president that the truth of my world wasn’t going to change that much on Wednesday morning. I would still need to swim laps. I would still need to practice. I would still need to teach the fragile and rambunctious kids that came through my door that afternoon.
Tuesday morning I arrived at the polls at 6:50am. I cast my vote, and I went about my day. I took myself to breakfast and wrote. I went to yoga. I practiced. I taught. That evening Matt and I talked on the phone. Obama had just won Pennsylvania. It was looking good for McCaskill in Missouri. Hanging up the phone, I put on some music, lit some candles, took a bath. I got into bed with a book and my cats. After a couple of chapters, I turned off the lights. I was just dozing when the fireworks began and celebratory shouts could be heard from neighborhood restaurants and bars telling me the news.
Retreating farther under the covers, I smiled and went to sleep.
January 22nd, 2012 :: Extraordinary Days
I am eating a lot of penance soup these days.
Thanks to the gods who set the calendar for Albuquerque Public Schools, I have just enjoyed the longest winter break ever. “Too much time off gets me in trouble,” my friend Patti often remarks, “I need the balance of work and play.” Wiser words have never been spoken.
In the Ten Thousand Stars Studio, the holiday officially began when my last student walked out the door on Wednesday, December 14th and my friend Lora and I got on a plane to Dallas for a long weekend. This trip had been long anticipated, and even had acquired a name: Amy and Lora’s Texas Tour of Christmas Crap. Or, as we had begun referring to it: TTCC.
In a previous lifetime many years ago, Matt and I lived in Fort Worth. We still have dear friends there who we try to see at least once a year. I have a college roommate who lives in Frisco, outside of Dallas, who I always love hanging out with. Last December, while Matt was still drowning in Christmas work, I went to Dallas to see these friends. It had been years since I had been in Texas at Christmas, and I had forgotten how seriously Texans take the holiday. I spent the weekend with my mouth hanging open: there was not a surface left in the state that did not have a flashing light or a big red bow. Wow! I kept thinking to myself, this is really something.
Then one night I was out walking, taking in the merry Christmas lights in the neighborhood where I was staying, when I stumbled upon this sight: a house (a nice ranch house on a very upper middle-class street, let me say) covered---and I mean COVERED-in lights. On the roof was not one, but two full-sized displays of Santa and his reindeer, which I thought might be a bit confusing for the children. In the yard was every possible Christmas character imaginable, life-sized and strung with flashing colored lights: carolers, Frosty, Rudolph, a manger scene with wise men coming from all directions, even a Ferris wheel filled with stuffed teddy bears (who knows?). But the piece de resistance was a carousel of horses, circling a Statue of Liberty. That would be a Statue of Liberty.
I stood there for minutes, but could not begin to take it all in. Staring at this circus cluttering this otherwise unremarkable house my first thought was, “No one is going to believe me when I tell them about this insanity.” My second thought: “Lora has got to see this.” And, at that moment, Amy and Lora’s Texas Tour of Christmas Crap was born.
Prior to our visit, Lora had barely set foot in Texas. A good reserved New Englander, she had driven through Amarillo on her way to Albuquerque. She had changed planes in Dallas and Houston a few times. She had spent 24 hours with me in Lubbock. But oh! There was still so many outrageous surprises awaiting her in this bigger than life state. Especially in mid-December. Especially in Dallas.
The TTCC was everything we had hoped for, living up and surpassing our wildest dreams. We spent a day in Frisco with my college friend, Julianne, catching up and shopping. (Oh! The shopping! Living as we do in a rather department-store-challenged state, the options-right there at your fingertips-seemed without limits. Turned out, that was some precious insight for the whole holiday break, this healthy respect for reasonable limits, or rather, the lack thereof.) We spent time with friends outside of Fort Worth, went on long morning walks, drank wine and coffee while watching the sun set and rise by the river, toured Christmas lights in the evenings-some set to synchronized music (Lions and Tigers and Bears: Oh MY!) -- puttered around the square in Granbury, attended a holiday tea given in our honor, ate and drank too much, and generally were treated like royalty. Everywhere we went someone was handing us more delicious food or offering us something wonderful to drink. There was one day where I had eaten more by three o’clock in the afternoon than I had the entire previous week. There was no stopping it: it would have been like trying to halt a tsunami.
And as promised, Texas was decked in all her glory. Even the house that sported the Lady Liberty did not disappoint. It was, in every way, an extravagantly indulgent weekend. I left feeling a bit overstuffed with it all: the endless eating and drinking; the time, energy, and money needed to maintain this level of merriment and decor; the sheer overabundance of the holiday cheer and, well, Christmas crap.
I came home and began eating a lot of penance soup.
Penance soup is what Matt calls cabbage or leek soup, which I make and eat when I am feeling especially repentant about overindulgences of any kind. Matt does not eat penance soup, as he is just generally a more well-balanced and moderate human being than I am. Penance soup is best consumed with a general feeling of mindfulness (a bit of remorse mixed in never hurt) and thankfulness. It is a good antidote, I have found, to the too-muchness that overtakes all of us during the holidays. It levels the playing field a bit, and it certainly helps to counteract the tidal wave of good eating that is otherwise not just surrounding us, but rather drowning us all.
And then, just when I was feeling a bit better about my world, the next gigantic wave of madness rolled in.
The next few days unfolded calmly enough, no sign of what to come. Matt worked; I practiced, raked leaves, went to yoga class. I swam laps and went on walks at dusk. I mailed Christmas cards and finished my studio newsletter. We had dinner with friends. I read through a towering pile of books and drank pots of tea. Our extremely simple Christmas display of lights, fish and angels twinkled merrily at us from the mantle. There was peace and harmony throughout the land.
And then the next round of meals began. My parents drove in from St Louis. Lora’s mother arrived from Massachusetts. We concocted big dinners involving cranberry roasts, smoked turkeys, two kinds of mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables, cheeses, homemade cookies, cheesecakes, chocolates. Moderation went out the window. I was mindful, all right: mindful of how much I was eating and drinking. The house was bursting: with people, wrapping paper, boxes of homemade fudge. It was all lovely, but I began to feel like I was drowning again. To add insult to injury, my head wouldn’t stop pounding.
Just when I was about to shoot off emergency flares (or at least move to a hotel for a couple of days, or a monastery), everyone left. Matt and I had a few days of quiet. I cleaned out closets, made cabbage soup, took books back to the library, practiced Bach, and generally felt repentant with every bite of penance soup.
But, of course, the holidays were not yet over.
January 1st, 2012 :: Extraordinary Days
In my mind, 2011 will always be the year of the betta fish.
I love that this year, the white crocheted angels and bells, dried cranberries and candles on the mantle had to make room for a couple of fish. It seems a lesson in remembering to expand our worldview, to grow a bigger heart, to make space for the simple joys in a too full life.
In the spirit of honestly, I must confess that Ping, Pang and Pong have all mysteriously died. So have 2Ping, 2Pang and 3Pong. This is not the fault of the two felines that live here. They could not care less about the fish swimming merrily inches away from their little paws. So much for entertainment.
It was bittersweet getting the angels and bells out this December. My grandmother who made them died last April after several years of deteriorating health. She made the bells for our wedding reception 18 years ago, the same year her husband-my grandfather-died on Christmas Day. When I look at the mantle decorated with her handiwork, I think that she would be pleased at the sight: angels, bells, and fish all crammed together happily.
During the last few years of Grandma’s life she didn’t know any of us. Sometimes she talked, chattering of nonsense, putting together people and events in strange combinations. The last time I saw Grandma, she was lost in the recesses of her confused mind. She seemed excited to see me, seemed to know that I was someone important to her, but who I might represent on the family tree was long gone.
After lunch, Momma and I wheeled Grandma through the garden and coming back through the lobby of the nursing home where she was living, we passed the lovely grand piano. In the years since Grandma had been living in there, I had made it a habit to always play the piano when I came to visit. Grandma couldn’t care less about the music, but she used to stop every single person walking through the lobby and announce loudly, “That is my granddaughter.”
Passing the grand piano that last day, I suggested that I play. “Someone might enjoy it,” I told Momma, “even if Grandma won’t know the difference.” We pushed Grandma’s wheelchair right up to the piano and I sat down. Suddenly Grandma grew agitated. Leaning toward me, she whispered, “Amy used to play this piano.”
Not only are the cats not interested in the fish, furthermore they have taken no notice of the wooden manger scene I set up at the beginning of Advent. When they were kittens, this display with its little cows and sheep were like cat toys. We lost Mary, the Queen of Heaven, that year, thanks to Godiva, which forced us to display the manger with two daddies - Joseph and a random wise man. While I liked the inclusive spirit, I was thrilled to find Mary many months later while moving furniture for a painting project. Today every character sits on its shelf, untouched by the cats. We are all growing mellow in our old age.
Perhaps, now that I think about it, that, and not the fish after all, is the defining characteristic of this year: we are growing more mellow, our rough places being made smooth with time and age, our lives feeling more precious and dear with every passing year.
Wishing you a peaceful, joyful, sweet 2012.
January 2nd, 2011 :: Extraordinary Days
I write that with no small sense of relief. This morning I took my dad to the airport at 4:30. When I returned, instead of crawling back into bed, I made coffee, took a shower, did some yoga and read for a couple hours. As I sit here, it is not yet 8am. I feel like I have been given the gift of time, a whole day open in front of me. Except to persuade the cats to move over on the couch, I may not say a word all day.
It's been an amazing, magical, but exhausting few weeks. On the heels of finishing up a semester's worth of lessons, statistics projects and papers, I spent a weekend in the Dallas area visiting friends. I have decided that this must become an annual tradition, this ritual of going to Texas in December. This is the state where--bless their hearts-- the motto may very well be: more is more. Texans have never seen a surface that didn't merit a bright red bow or a ledge that didn't deserve a string of lights. In one subdivision I stumbled upon a house that even in broad daylight I knew would satisfy my every over-the-top Christmas fantasy. After dark, I walked back to the house just so I could take it all in without being rushed. There was not one, but TWO Santa and reindeer displays lit up on the rooftop and dozens of snowmen, manger scenes, herds of reindeer, carolers and any other Christmas character imaginable outlined in colored lights on the lawn. Completing the scene was a sparkling Jesus is Lord! written in flashing lights. My favorite touch, the piece de resistance: a life size Statue of Liberty. And, at its feet, were real carousel horses circling around. Taking in this Vegas-like decor, I laughed out loud and, not for the first time that weekend, wished that I had my camera with me to document the whole thing. No one back home would ever believe me.
I landed back in Albuquerque just hours before the arrival of a string of guests: friends, my dad, my sister-in-law, three french hens, two turtle doves, and the partridge in the pear tree. This was hardly an introvert's paradise. And so the fun began. For days, I did little besides cook and clean and load the dishwasher.
We set out luminaries on Christmas Eve and drank wine at 1:30 in the morning after the last service.
We made two trips to Santa Fe: ducked into the Cathedral on the plaza, wandered up Canyon Road with our imaginary budget of 20 thousand dollars, ate enchiladas and poblanos under outdoor space heaters.
We had friends over for Matt's birthday, and hosted a Christmas Eve dinner party at noon.
I made daily trips to the grocery store and washed a hundred wine glasses.
"You two like to entertain like no one I've ever seen," said one visiting friend.
It's not quite true. We love filling our home with friends and family, but relish our privacy and solitude just as much. Last night, sitting around our table with our best friends and my dad, Matt turns to me, "What do you want to do tomorrow night? Want to have some people over?" He is joking, teasing me and my Martha Stewart-like behavior of the past days. "No," I said firmly looking around at the people I hold dear. "I love you all, but I'm way done. No more."
As wonderful as the last few weeks have been, I close the door on the festive season quite happily. I'm beyond ready to settle in on the couch with my cats and my pile of books. I have music to practice and sentences scrolling in my head demanding to be put down on paper. There are closets that need my attention and at least a million leaves to rake. I plan on taking extra yoga classes and swimming meditative laps at the pool. The pendulum has swung.
October 10th, 2010 :: Extraordinary Days
I am already starting to call this summer "The Summer of the 1000 Cranes." While I was living inside these months, it seemed to be all about my crippled leg, which made me want to name it "The Summer from Hell." But already two weeks into fall, I am starting to see this past summer through a different lens. This is a welcomed shift, and makes me view the last few months with much more affection and gratitude.
But first, the story of the paper cranes. According to Japanese legend, the person that folds and then gives away 1000 cranes will have a wish granted, and the recipient of this gift will be granted good luck. This story gained world-wide familiarity when a young Japanese girl named Sadako was diagnosed with cancer caused by the radiation from the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. She began folding origami cranes, and before she died, she folded over 600. After her death, her friends and family finished the 1000 cranes and buried them with her. Today there is a statue of Sadako holding a golden crane in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. In memory of Sadako, people all over the world fold cranes and send the garlands to be draped over the statue.
This summer, my friend and musical colleague Jerome decided that I needed some good luck. And so, unbeknownst to me, Jerome, his ever patient partner Neal, and his mother Phoebe began folding cranes.
One night, during a stretch of rehearsals together, Jerome arrived at my door carrying two bundles of cranes. Each garland held 40 cranes; there were 25 strings of origami cranes total. One thousand cranes. They were stunning. I was speechless, for once beyond words. This has to have been one of the most glorious gifts I have ever received.
We hung them above my desk, gracing my work with their colorful quiet presence. The room immediately took on a sacred hush. Every time I look at them I feel their power.
Since then, we've all been folding cranes. Jerome has decided that he wants to fold 10,000 cranes this year, and a total of 100,000 in his lifetime. On the surface, folding cranes looks to be senseless, but perhaps it is a peaceful act of rebellion in this noisy world, a way to nudge the world into a better place. Not so different, I have decided, than making music.
One night a bunch of friends got together over drinks and snacks to fold cranes. "Wax on, wax off," Jerome chanted, citing the old Karate Kid movie. For hours, he'd only teach us the first few steps. "You're learning technique," he reprimanded us when we complained.
Over the past several weekends, Jerome and I gave a series of concerts in Santa Fe, Taos, Gallup and Rio Rancho. On this so-called "World Tour" (our worlds are very small), we folded cranes. Obsessively. Or at least Jerome and Neal folded obsessively. Lora (who was along as the official Page Turner) and I shopped. "This World Tour should be named Two Men and Origami Paper," Lora said when we wandered into the bar at the Taos Inn, only to stumble upon the two of them compulsively folding cranes while drinking margaritas.
Even my students have entered the picture. Intrigued by the hanging cranes in our studio space, my students have plenty of opinions about this process. "Your friend must have a lot of time," several kids remarked, surprising me with their astute conception of how precious and fleeting time is. Last weekend in performance class, once the performances and musical activities were behind us, we folded cranes. Some students were quickly frustrated and impatient, unable to be precise enough with their corners to manage a successful crane. Other students were immediately hooked, and a slowly growing pile of paper cranes is collecting in the sunroom. "Who are we going to give these to?" the students asked. We are a long way away from our thousand, but already they have some good ideas about who should be the recipient of our labor. "Too bad Beethoven isn't still alive," one kid remarked.
And so, as summer finally, at long lasts, melts into fall, I find my perspective shifting along with the season. This will now forever be "The Summer of the 1000 Cranes," Jerome's beautiful act folding into all of our lives. It isn't hard to identify people in our lives who are struggling in one form or another and need the gift of a 1000 paper cranes prayerfully folded. Together we may indeed get to that 100,000 goal, all of us a small part of something that has become bigger than any one of us alone.
I shall write peace upon your wings, your heart
and you shall fly around the world so that children will no longer have to die this way."
-translated haiku by Sadako Sasaki
Photos by Jerome Jim and company
September 5th, 2010 :: Extraordinary Days
We were living in Boston on September 11th. I was at school when the terrorist attacks took place. We canceled classes and lessons and I made my way home to join my husband in front of the television. We watched the story unfold on two levels: nationally and locally. Names of the victims on the two planes from Boston begin to be released---this would continue for weeks. I was strangely detached and numb from the stories, and yet I felt shaken by the geographical and social proximity to these events. There is no denying that this felt different than it would have if we still lived in the midwest. We did not personally know any of the victims, but there was not the infamous six degrees to separate us from many people whose lives were changed forever.
I felt only fear. In the days immediately after, we heard rumors that Boston was to be the site of more attacks. I woke up in the middle of the night shaken from nightmares about bombs going off in the Prudential Center or in the Hancock Tower. The sound of sirens sent chills down my back. My heart pounded in my chest for weeks. I was not interested in war or revenge. I was interested in getting the hell off the East Coast. I wanted to get in a car and drive west to Kansas. Or north to Quebec City. I was not proud of my lack of courage in the face of these events. I was not proud of my impulse to flee. But there it was; I was scared. I wanted to run away.
As time went on, something shifted. While we were newcomers to Boston and had moved to there on a whim and a prayer, about the time the second twin tower fell, we went from being explorers of a new city to simply living there. The tragedy made us claim our lives. We weren't outsiders anymore to the issues at school or at work. Instead, we started to feel invested: I wanted to hear about Natalie's problems with her boyfriend. I cared about the recital policies at my schools. I was invited to participate in meeting with parents and elementary school psychologists trying to determine Jack's learning disability. I was concerned that Julie hadn't learned to read music. "It is in the shelter of each other that the people live," says the Irish proverb.
Nine years later and two thousands miles away from the site of so much tragedy, my perspective has changed again. Last weekend we had the seniors in Matt's youth choir over for dinner. This is an annual tradition, a small rite of passage in both their lives and ours. I was in the kitchen fussing with dishes when I overheard the kids talking about their memories of 9/11. It was strange listening to them. After all, they were 7 years-old and living across the country from the center of the events on that day. And yet, every major national decision since that time has been made under the 9/11 cloud. It is, of course, the most important world event of their lives, but one they remember very differently than I do.
"This will be our reply to violence," Leonard Bernstein said after the assassination of John F Kennedy, "to make music more intensely, more beautifully, and more devotedly than ever before." All is not right in the world and will never be, I think, as I go about my life, tending and caring for the small corner of the universe I call home.
April 11th, 2010 :: Extraordinary Days
We have been suspicious this winter that we might have mice. I shudder to even write that sentence, and lately with the weather beginning to warm up, I had been hopeful that our days of rodent cohabitation are over. In recent weeks the cats have not been spending long hours guarding the baseboards; there has been no tell-tell rodent evidence left behind for a while now. Things have been looking up.
Then, several weeks ago, Matt was out of town for a few days judging choirs in Las Cruces. When Matt is gone, the cats sleep with me, something Matt doesn't usually tolerate since sleeping with the cats means a fair amount of not sleeping at all, due to their antics. In the middle of the night, I wake up to hear a loud crash in the study. Godiva went flying off the bed in search of the party, which immediately told me this was not a break-in, but rather feline-initiated chaos. "Uh-oh," I thought to myself, "they are chasing something." And I promptly fall back asleep. The next morning I was stumbling around the house with my first cup of coffee (barefoot!), when I stepped on something squishy. It was a chewed up-mouse, just waiting for me on the rug under my desk. I screamed. Loudly. I screamed again. The cats looked alarmed, and Yun-Sun ran away guiltily. After I screamed some more, I scooped up the dead critter, (all the while thinking how very much it looked like the grey toy mice around here, only with blood and entrails hanging out), and resumed my morning routines. About an hour later, I went to the piano to begin my practicing for the day. Under my piano bench was another---another!!!--half-consumed mouse. This was unbelievable. The cats have lived quiet, sheltered (boring, they would tell you) lives for the last 5 years under our roof. Other than the annual trips to the vet, they have never even been outside. I would not have thought they would even know what to do with a mouse, let alone successfully murder two in one night. I will never be able to look at them the same way.
("Those blog entries just write themselves, don't they?" Matt said, when I called to tell him about our night of mayhem and carnage.)
Of course no one needs to remind me that this aggressive behavior is exactly what I had instructed them to do earlier this year when the mice first appeared. I just never dreamed they would take me so literally, or more to the point, leave their carcasses exactly where I would trip over them. "Yep, that's what cats do," a friend tells me later when I share my horror. "They leave them as trophies where they know you'll find them." "Could they have possibly picked better spots?" Matt remarks. "Your desk and your piano. They've got your number, Amy."
But I am still traumatized by the whole thing. I can't sit by and do nothing and hope that this is a one-time only killing spree. "What do I do now?" I ask another friend. "Nothing," she replies. "Your cats are doing just fine. They are taking care of business for you."
Now every morning, I put on slippers as I get out of bed and cautiously search the house for any dead rodents. My cats have never looked so well fed.
December 13th, 2009 :: Extraordinary Days
My favorite time of the year, bar none, is the week of Thanksgiving. In particular, I love the two or three days right before Thanksgiving, when the holiday weekend is still ahead of you, pregnant with anticipation and all good things. Like pie
I never teach much this week, and Matt always takes off some extra days, giving us the gift of empty time together. Our shared history has included some wonderful pre-holiday days. There was the year (when we were dating) that we went to see The Remains of the Day at a Westport movie theater in Kansas City, and when we got out of the movie, it was snowing, creating a magical hushed suspense over the world. Another year we were living a comfortable existence in Ft Worth but were spending every spare moment daydreaming about leaving our of familiar predictable lives and moving to the East Coast. ("This is our one and only life," Matt kept reminding me.) That Thanksgiving we had a perfect trip to Boston, getting standby seats (those were the days!) on Wednesday, and arriving in time for a big lunch in Chinatown. We spent the afternoon wandering through the Boston Common and Beacon Hill, chasing strangers carrying pie boxes as they climbed the cobblestone hills. I fell for Boston hard that visit, my heart and soul sighing, "Home" as if I recognized it from some previous life. As a mid-westerner, how could I know that New England was my true home? I swore then that I'd spend every Thanksgiving in Boston for as long as I lived.
Of course, I haven't. Although by the following Thanksgiving we had sold two cars and our wedding china, and were living in Boston in a tiny apartment around the corner from Fenway Park, that year we rented a farm house in New Hampshire for the weekend. On our way up, we drove through a dangerous early season snowstorm in a bad rental car. We spent the weekend snowed into that classic white farmhouse. (The woods are lovely, dark, and deep......Matt murmured in my ear when we finally arrived, toasting New Hampshire's famous poet who lived just down the road.) Icicles as long as my arm hung from the windows. We kept a fire going the entire four days, made soup, drank wine, read piles of books, and listened to the snow plows trying to dig us out from the haven of a cozy bed covered with a pile of quilts. I think I took three hot baths every day. It was heaven.
Snow is a recurring theme among my fondest Thanksgiving memories. Another Boston Thanksgiving my sisters came for a visit: Beth from Los Angeles and Sarah from New York. They arrived on Tuesday, and we woke the next morning to discover that during the night we had gotten several feet of snow. It was breathtaking, and so quiet. We walked for hours through the snow, up and down streets with no traffic, stopping for cappuccinos in an Italian coffee house on Newbury street. To date, my favorite picture of us might be from that afternoon, bundled up in coats, gloves and hats, grinning at the camera from the middle of a snowy Commonwealth Avenue.
Those Boston years were good ones indeed. But life is unpredictable, and in spite of my deep attachment to New England, we now find ourselves building a life in the desert. We own a house and a car, have two cats and a garden, and at least three sets of dishes. Thanksgivings here have included days on our own, roasting a chicken and drinking a bottle of champagne, raking leaves and planting tulip bulbs. We have spent some years with friends around their bountiful tables. One year we went to San Francisco
for the week. The only discernible pattern is the intention that these are special days, moments to treasure.
This year was no different. I taught an easy week of make-up lessons, finishing the last one at 7pm on Tuesday. We went to Old Town for dinner, taking advantage of a new set of wheels in our driveway to get us there and back without incident. Wednesday morning I went to an early yoga class, stars still shining in the sky as I made my way along the darkened streets. We worked in the yard. I practiced, wrote, and read, enjoying the magical afternoon hours on the couch watching the subtle play of light shift across the walls. I made green chile potato soup, and after dark, walked up to the Nob Hill Flying Star
to pick up dessert. Inside it was deserted, except for the festive table piled high with pies for take-away that was getting a brisk business.
We spent this Thanksgiving day with friends--Carolyn and Earl--and their extended chosen family. Carolyn and Earl, Max and Jean, and Martha and Jake met in Boston while in graduate school in the 1960's. Earl was working on a graduate degree in astrophysics at MIT, Jake was in economics at Harvard, and Max was at Harvard Divinity School. Between them, they raised 7 children in Boston, vacationed together, and built careers: Martha taught school in Belmont, Carolyn taught piano in Lexington and was music director at Lexington United Methodist church, Jean founded the piano pedagogy program at New England Conservatory. Over the years, they attended graduations, weddings, baptisms. Grandchildren were born. Carolyn and Earl moved to Albuquerque 18 years ago. Max and Jean bought a summer home in the Berkshires and moved to Princeton. This year all three couples celebrated their 50th wedding anniversaries. And for nearly 5 decades they have not missed a Thanksgiving together.
The spring we determined that we were moving from Boston to Albuquerque, I wrote my friend and teacher Jean, with whom I had taken piano pedagogy at NEC. "My best friend lives in Albuquerque," she wrote back, "You need to find her. She will take care of you."
She has. As it turned out when we finally put two and two together, Carolyn had been on the search committee that hired Matt, and picked him up from the airport when he came for his interview. The world grows smaller all the time. Today she sings in Matt's choir at church, and has been to nearly every performance we have given here. Every three years, the infamous Thanksgiving gathering is in New Mexico, which means every third year we are privileged to sit in on the day.
After nearly 50 years of this, there are a few rituals. The group, which includes the three original couples, children and grandchildren, and honored witnesses like ourselves, gather in the living room for what has been christened "Circle Time." Each person takes a turn and summarizes their year, shares joys and sorrows, and breaks big news. Everyone has their moment, from the oldest person to the youngest. This year we heard about the grandchildren's soccer games, and the elders' health problems and struggles with learning to retire. Matt announced that he was having a mid-life crisis
; I talked about going back to school and the challenges of becoming simultaneously rooted and attached to a place, and trying to stay stimulated and challenged at the same time. This year, Cynthia spoke last. Cynthia is Carolyn and Earl's daughter and has the distinct position of being the oldest of the "kid" generation. "When I was younger," she began, "I used to hate Circle Time and thought I would die of hunger before it ended. But what I have realized as I sit here listening is that over the years I have had a glimpse of what looks like to be an adult at different stages of life. I heard about your careers, and how you coped with your elderly parents. I learned when you were first thinking about retirement, and now I see what it looks like to figure out how to grow old gracefully." Turning to the grandchildren she continued, "Maybe someday you'll remember that someone was having a mid-life crisis, or going back to school, or coping with health challenges and that these things were just a part of life. Circle Time is a microcosm of what it is to be a person, and what it means to make sense of your world as you go along."
As Cynthia spoke, I looked around at the founding members of Circle Time--the three men sitting together on the couch, the women scattered around the room gently guiding the discussion. In a world of broken relationships and missed connections, Circle Time is a powerful place to land every few years.
"Home" will always be one of the most holy words I know. Although I will spend the rest of my life feeling in exile from New England, home---be it in our small jewel-boxed New Mexican cottage or our former tiny colorful apartment in Beacon Hill---is still my favorite place to be. Home, however, is more than a single place. It is also chosen family, mentors and teachers, sacred empty time, holidays and holy days
. It's a rented farmhouse in New Hampshire. It's being snowed in a Boston apartment. It's driving home in the snow after a great film, and being with friends and family we treasure. Home is struggling to grow up and grow old, and learning how to build a world and life for yourself. In one form or another, home comes down to Circle Time, and the stories that make up our lives.
November 22nd, 2009 :: Extraordinary Days
My brother Bob loves apples. I mean, seriously, he LOVES apples. Although I don't know his current apple consumption as an adult, I can tell you that when we were kids he could eat an entire bag of apples in one day. Our house was littered with apple cores--- tucked behind cushions, set on bookshelves and counters, tossed into the fireplace or thrown under the sofa. That is, when Bob didn't just eat the entire thing, core and all.
I love apples too, although my daily consumption doesn't anywhere touch my brother's. More often than not, I eat an apple as I down my last gulp of coffee in the morning. Many days I get to lunchtime realizing that's all I have remembered to eat. A lack of apples in the house motivates me to go to the store immediately. Only the absence of cream in the refrigerator or coffee in the pantry provokes a similar sense of urgency. Last night after choir rehearsal Matt called. He said he was stopping at the store, did I need anything? Cream, I replied, and apples.
This morning I noticed he had bought Jonathans. My grandparents used to grow Jonathan apples on the farm, but I haven't eaten a Jonathan apple since they sold the farm some 20 years ago. However, a bowl of Jonathan apples may inspire a pie this weekend, just out of nostalgia for my grandmother and her delicious pies. Mine is a variation on the apple pie theme, introduced to me by my friend, Lora. This one uses a store-bought crust (something my grandma would never do, but then I haven't yet achieved her domestic goddess status), and frozen cranberries, giving the dessert a tartness that cries out for a good ice cream. I could say that I need to practice making my pie in preparation for the rounds of Thanksgiving courses we will be attending next Thursday, but that would be a lie. Although we will need lots of pies in hand as we progress from course to course, I don't need practice on this one. I could make this pie in my sleep.
But making pies is a small step towards entering the Thanksgiving season, something I desperately need to do. Honestly, it has been a tough couple of months, which have climaxed recently in an especially trying couple of weeks. Last weekend, in fact, could be renamed The Weekend to Try a Woman's Soul, and the entire few months should be called The Season of Our Discontent. There are a dozens of reasons for this, both personal and professional, but I am tired of whining about it. Truth is, it's past time to stop and count our blessings, of which we have hundreds.
Just for starters, we should stop and remember the dozens of friends and neighbors who have literally carried us through the past few weeks, when our 20-year old car finally shuddered to a complete stop. There was our neighbor Jay who dropped what he was doing and came and jumped the car, allowing me to drive it the final few yards home. There was Dan, who with his three boys, arrived at our door late one Saturday night with a battery charger, in hopes of getting us through a couple more days. There were the various parents of my students who called with car leads, and offers of rides. There was Patti, who loaned us her car so I could get to my fall studio recital, and Lora, who in her own stalling, dying vehicle drove me to a concert I was playing so I didn't have to ride my bicycle.
That's only the beginning of the Thanksgiving litany, for in various ways both Matt and I have needed a lot of support this fall. Friends and mentors have been there with compassionate ears and shoulders to cry on. Students and colleagues have forgiven us when we have failed; friends and family have offered their hands when we fell down. When the roof leaked for the 500th time this season, we discovered to our dismay that our roofer had broken up with us, and wouldn't return our calls. But thanks to a quick referral from a friend, we soon had a new roofer and a patched roof. We still have work that we love most days; we have a colorful home that is ours; we have two funny, quirky cats. We have each other, and a marriage that I believe in. While there may always be limited funds in our bank account and an ancient car in our driveway, we have more than enough, and people who love us.
And so, in one friend's words, it's time to start the festive season at the Greers'. Next Friday after the day-long progressive Thanksgiving dinner with various friends, we host our annual St. Cecelia party , our yearly toast to the patron of music. It's time to raise a glass, and be thankful.
For the harvests of the Spirit,
thanks be to God.
For the good we all inherit,
thanks be to God.
For the wonders that astound us,
for the truths that still confound us,
most of all that love has found us,
thanks be to God.
-Fred Pratt Green
June 7th, 2009 :: Extraordinary Days
"I don't want a mistress. I don't want a sports car. All I want for my 40th birthday is a road trip by myself. And I want you at the end of it."
This was the announcement my husband gives me last summer, some months before his birthday. I have come to learn that I didn't respond to this wish exactly as Matt might have hoped. "Hmm..." I answered nonchalantly, and desperately changed the subject.
I hope it never is said that we don't support one another's hopes and dreams, and that we are each other's best advocate against the world, but I missed this one. Looking back, I think I hoped this plan would go the way of all good things. Or, at least, the way of most plans made after sharing a bottle of wine in the courtyard on a beautiful summer night.
Ah, the ways we fail each other. Matt was deadly serious about every part of that statement. He didn't want a mistress; he didn't want a sports car; he wanted a road trip and he wanted me at the end of it. "Boston, maybe," he said. "Or New York. I want to walk into a hotel bar and find you there."
And so over the last six months, Matt began making plans. He was granted a month's sabbatical at work. Road maps and travel books began littering the study. He booked a week long retreat at the Abbey of the Gethsemani in Kentucky. He reserved a rental car. Instead of me being at the end of the trip in a city we both love, I'd be at the beginning, for the trip would start in New York with my sister, Beth's, wedding. From there we'd take a bus to DC and visit Matt's sister, Mary. I'd fly home, Matt would pick up a car and start his adventure, which, by the end, even had a name: The Journey of Discovery.
I didn't like the name at all. ("What do you need to discover?! I feel threatened.") I also didn't love the idea that I'd be flying home to an empty house, to be alone for two weeks. It's not that I don't like to be alone -- after nearly 15 years of marriage, solitude can be a welcome change of pace -- I just wasn't at all sure I wanted or needed two weeks of it. After all, too much time left alone to my own thoughts is simply too much time. And, the way my teaching schedule fell, I was going to be not working for much of the time, leaving me plenty of time to fully experience the solitude. "Why can't you do this when I am working around the clock and won't notice you're gone? Or, even better, why don't you do your discovering on day trips, with Albuquerque as your home base?"
But in the end, Matt got his road trip, which he renamed A Journey of Non-Discovery with a Happy Reunion at the End. He is somewhere in Tennessee as I write this, perhaps taking in the sights at Graceland. Meanwhile, my friend Lora, usually a reliable source of both company and entertainment, is on her own journey: a six-day backpacking trip in Yosemite. She spontaneously signed up for this trip after a bad breakup last winter, and has regretted it ever since. On our hikes together, I am always the one saddled with the coffee and croissants and jam, with the flora and fauna guides, not to mention the water. (Just call me "Sherpa.") The fact that Lora would have to carry some 40 pounds on her back during multi-day hike made her panic. She began training by carrying hand weights in a backpack on our early morning strolls through the neighborhood. I fully anticipated her to cancel and consider the $500 non-refundable deposit a generous donation to the Sierra Club, but Thursday morning, with my husband lost somewhere in the deep south, I drove Lora to the airport so she could fly to California. On the way she announced, "You know, this is the first time I have left the house without make-up since I was 16." "Hmm," I responded. "I can't remember the last time I wore make-up." "I know. And it's just wrong." Lora said. "God invented make-up, and we should wear it."
The night before, when we were searching for supper in my refrigerator, she said, "I need a name for my trip. Matt has a name for his trip." "How about The Trek of Stupidity?" I responded. "I was thinking The Hike of Doom," She shot back. "The Trek of Stupidity. The Hike of Doom. For an adventure of your magnitude surely you need a double name," I suggested.
As it happened, I have ended up with a few discoveries of my own, most of which seem to be things I have learned before, but have failed to retain. The first is that, while I may not be teaching, I will always be busy. This never ceases to surprise me, that I manage to overfill even my vacation time. This time around I have been gardening for hours a day, reading at least eight books, practicing for a couple of upcoming recitals. I have had dinners with friends, taken extra yoga classes, done some much-needed planning. It hasn't been hard to roll out of bed at first light with the cats, and to hardly feel like I have had time to catch my breath for the next 14 hours. None of this should be a surprise. It certainly isn't to Matt, hearing about my days on our nightly phone calls. But for some mysterious reason, I always think time off will literally be "free time." It isn't; it's just filled differently.
The second great lesson gets its own title. For some time now I have been interested in exploring meditation, perhaps in a Buddhist setting or community. I have tried meditating from time to time on my own, but have never been able to settle down with it at home. Quite simply, I am too distracted by the many competing forces on my time and attention within the walls of my own house. Maybe, I thought, if I found a committed meditation "sit" I would do better. So, last night I accompanied my friend Patti to the neighborhood community for a 40-minute "sit." "We can go later if you think that might be too long," she had offered earlier in the week. "No," I answered. "I want to try the whole thing." Later I regretted this almost as much as Lora regretted her impulsive decision to spend six nights in a tent. In fact, in the days before, I seriously panicked. "Well," said my friend Anne, "you better hope you are meditating for that length of time, because if you aren't you might just be going crazy." I needed a title for my meditation evening, I thought. Something that would appropriately express both my hopes and my fears. The Journey Within, With the Possibility of Crawling Out of My Own Skin seemed about right.
Miraculously, I was fine. Good, even. Now, I was plenty pleased when the 40 minutes were over, but I was not crawling out of my skin. I wasn't even itching. This proved what I had suspected, that this would be both a highly spiritual and grounding practice for me to do, and that my big lesson is to figure out how to manage it at least some of the time in my own living room, even with a thousand of pulls on my attention. I get that this might be the point, that I need to learn to center myself especially when the forces of life yank at me from many directions.
There seems to be one other lesson this month. This one isn't really a surprise either, although it's not a bad one to be reminded of every once in a while: I miss my husband. While the house is more orderly without Matt spreading out his stuff from one end to the other, it isn't home without him. My life might be less messy without him around, but it much less colorful. He makes me laugh. Without him, I lose sight of the ground. Busy as I might be in my own work and thoughts, there is some point every day when Matt makes me stop working. Without him I forget to eat, and lose track of the time. I didn't need to learn that I need the rock that Matt is in my life; I've known that for the last 17 years. He may be lost in Tennessee somewhere, but I'm lost at home without him.
It's the Happy Reunion I'm yearning for these days. I'll be at the end, my darling, waiting.
April 19th, 2009 :: Extraordinary Days
St. Patrick's Day Scarfing.....
Easter sunrise morning scarfing (albeit sans scarf) occurred at 6AM (something about the sunrise part makes the whole crime very Biblical we think). The question has arisen: what kind of bird is it? A raven? A crane? A falcon? Could it be the elusive Maltese Falcon with special magical powers?
If you "scarf" a bird, do you "duck" a pond?
During this scarfing, we discovered that underneath the St. Patrick's Day twirly headband someone had left a note:
I Love You!
Clearly, this is a message from the bird. We are reading this as encouragement to keep up our seasonal costume changes. Cinco de Mayo here we come!
January 7th, 2009 :: Extraordinary Days
It's been a lovely holiday.
Truth is, holidays can go either way.
No matter how much I might profess to love the season between
Halloween and Christmas, it doesn't mean that it isn't without its
complications. Those two months are always too busy, there is
way too much sugar tempting us at every turn, I work too much, play
too much, sleep and exercise too little. On top of that, every
year the Christmas season reminds me of how too much of a good thing
is simply too much. I always end up feeling buried alive by
the sheer amount of gifts coming into the door, holiday decor
cluttering the house, and cookies filling my kitchen. No
matter how much I may enjoy all of those things, a little goes a long
ways. I can't remember a post-Christmas week where I haven't
resorted to blindly throwing away wrapping paper, ribbons, boxes,
food items, cards, and more in the hopes of digging us out. No wonder
that in January I inevitably find myself supporting the simplicity
And then there is the issue of
holiday travel. We've lived a long distance from our families
for many years now -- long enough that there are no expectations
about whether or not we will come home for the holidays. This
is a good thing, and allows us freedom to make our own plans.
Some years we head back to Missouri and spend the week on I-70 so we
can do Christmas with both Matt's Kansas City siblings, and my St.
Louis family. Stressful as it can be, it is always good to be
home, see family, catch up with friends, visit old haunts, and have some time away.
But this year, we stayed in New
Mexico for the holidays. As it turns out, this has been a
lovely place to keep Christmas.
After finishing my last lessons for
the semester, I crammed in last-minute Christmas shopping, wrote
our holiday letter, started wrapping gifts, finished my studio
newsletter. The Saturday night before Christmas we were
invited to Jerome and Neal's for a "Dutch dinner." Jerome is not only a flutist, but also a superb cook. He has been casually mentioning his Dutch dinner ever since I met
him. When pressed, he would say it was a winter meal, and then change the subject. Several weeks ago, I was at the house
to see his Christmas tree, and Jerome said that he had some Dutch
dinner leftovers in the refrigerator, did I want to try a bite?
Never one to turn down food of any sorts, in short order Jerome
placed in front of me a bowl of steaming hot mashed potatoes with
slices of ham in it. I almost swooned. "It's not
much," Jerome kept saying, "just ham cooked in butter with
mashed potatoes." Oh. Oh. Oh. I
kept repeating over and over again. Oh....
I must have convinced him that this
was a special meal indeed, for although Jerome seemed almost
apologetic to serve us such a "simple dinner," upon hearing
that Matt's sister Mary was to be in town for the holidays, he
invited us up for Dutch food. Mary, for her part, was sceptical
at best. After all, she had lived in Holland and had nothing
good to say about the food. But she was eager to meet Jerome
and Neal, and so willingly arranged her plans to be here Saturday
night in time for dinner.
Served up to all its glory, the
"simple dinner" went something like this: Jerome
scooped a mound of buttery mashed potatoes in the middle of each
plate. On the potatoes he laid three strips of rolled ham,
which I had seen simmering in about 6 inches of butter on the stove.
In between each slice of ham, he gently set spears of white
asparagus, and then topped the whole artery-clogging pile with a
sliced boiled egg. This dinner could give you a heart attack,
if you didn't die first of happiness. Matt took one bite and
was transported to his happy place. Mary was completely won
over to Dutch cuisine. I was convinced this was comfort food
of the highest order. Jerome wouldn't stop apologizing for the
simplicity of it all.
Having lived through the cholesterol-soaring dinner of the previous evening, the next day were Matt's
Lessons and Carols services. As a church musician, this is both
one of the highlights of his year and the cause of the most stress
and anxiety. He was coasting a bit this year, it seemed to me.
I remarked upon this, saying that he seemed less stressed this
month than in the past. "What gives?" I asked him.
"Is it that you've just done it now about a dozen times? Or
that the choirs are in better shape this year? Why are you so
calm?" "Probably it's all of those things,"
Matt said. "I"m just thinking that this is going to be
a lot of fun. I get to conduct 115 singers and a 30-piece
orchestra doing great music. What's not to love?"
Mary, on the other hand, woke up
Sunday morning with two goals. She needed to get a new camera
so she could take pictures during the service ("Strictly
forbidden," Matt reminded her, but then remembered this was his big sister, who has attended every big event of his since his 2nd grade choir concert with a camera in hand.). In addition to the camera,
Mary wanted a Christmas sweater to wear, as the one she had brought
she had been wearing since the early 1980's. Apparently, before
she left DC, a friend took Mary into her office, shut the door and gently told her that the sweater was no longer fit to be
worn in public. I am one of those people who feel strongly
that no one needs a Christmas sweater, but Mary was to be a reader
during the 6:00 service and wanted one to wear.
Faced with this information as I am drinking my first cup of coffee,
my mind starts racing to see how I can get out of stepping into a
store that might sell holiday attire. "Listen," I
told her, "someone just gave me a Christmas sweater. Maybe
you could wear it? And if you like it you could keep it."
It was true. Not two weeks
before, our friend Carolyn had called to say
she was dropping off a sweater that I could have or could pass along
as I wanted, but that no one in her family could wear it and it
needed a new home. Apparently she had given this sweater to her
mother-in-law the previous Christmas, who happened to be my size.
The mother-in-law was in her 90's and died last January,
leaving an unworn Christmas sweater, which was now in my
possession. Mary, I reasoned, could have the 90-year-old woman's sweater.
Amazingly, she agreed, which solved
two problems at once: the immediate issue of the Christmas
sweater needed that day, and the long-term problem of finding this
sweater a loving home. So, with Mary attired in her new bright red
Christmas sweater, we went to both services, which were
indeed lovely. I persuaded Mary to only take photos while Matt
wasn't looking, and to her credit, she kept the flash turned off.
Afterwards, we went to dinner and began plotting the next event on
the week's agenda.
In two days, Matt was turning 40.
This, more than anything, was the reason for Mary's trip to New
Mexico this year. Aided by plenty of other people, I had been
scheming for months about how to celebrate Matt's big birthday
appropriately. At one point, one friend had written on her calendar,
"Top Secret Mission" to mark a possible surprise party
date. This was just in case Matt ever saw her calendar. Certainly, "Top Secret Mission" would not arouse
suspicions. But in the end, the party was not a surprise after
all. Instead, between about the seventh and eighth party of the season
at our house, I exhaustedly said, "Baby, I'll throw you a party.
When do you want it?"
Monday morning began with a hike, followed by breakfast and a huge grocery shopping trip.
And then the fun began. I pointed in the direction of
lights and luminaries, and Mary and our friend Katie went to work, while I baked
a triple layer chocolate cake, cleaned house, iced champagne,
gathered cards and letters into a basket, and so on. That night
our home was filled with friends ready to toast the completion of my husband's fourth decade. The cake became my domestic goddess moment of the year.
There were speeches given, toasts made, songs sung, many bottles of
champagne drunk. Katie and her mother must have washed dozens
of dishes and glasses, for when I made my way to the kitchen at one
point in the evening, there were piles of neatly stacked plates
washed and dried and ready to put away. At about 11:30pm, Anne and I made pasta carbonara for the late crowd, and the final bottle of champagne was opened at midnight. Matt's
brother Mark phoned from England a few minutes later to be the first
sibling calling to wish Matt a happy birthday. All in all,
it was a wonderful night, a perfect final party of 2008.
The next day--Matt's actual
birthday--Mary, Matt and I went to Santa Fe. Mary had a friend
who had offered her condo while she was away. "How is it that
Mary has these friends with empty condos in Santa Fe, and we don't?" we asked one another. We spent
the day wandering around the plaza, eating nachos in the St. Francis
Hotel, having a late dinner at Cafe Pasqual's. The next morning
I took a soul-feeding solitary walk down Canyon Road (My nomination for the
happiest place on earth. Forget Disneyland -- I'll take
Canyon Road any day.), and then we headed home so that Matt
could get ready for Christmas Eve services. Matt went to
church, Mary and I put out luminaries once again, keeping that
delightful New Mexico tradition. Mary went off to church, I
stayed home, unpacked, tried to put the house in order, and made a
Christmas Eve dinner of roast beef with cranberries and two kinds of
potatoes, which we ate between services. We all went to the 11
o'clock service, and then home for dessert and drinks at midnight.
After a holiday like this one,
crashing was inevitable, and crash we have. We thought we'd
rent a car and go on an unplanned adventure, but the couch has had
too much appeal. Having not slept past dawn for month, we've
been sleeping late, easily getting 10 hours of sleep every night.
We've been reading and watching movies, going on walks, and eating
our way though the huge quantity of sugar that we have accumulated in the
last month. I have been gardening, working through the late
outdoor projects of gathering leaves for the compost pile and cutting
back perennials. Slowly, now that 2009 has arrived, I am in
the process of de-Christmasizing the house: taking a load of ribbons
and bells, cranberry strands and candles every time I go downstairs.
This always takes longer than I think it should; inevitably in mid-January I will still be finding miscellaneous Christmas
items--CDs, books, angels--that I have overlooked. We are
down to the last of the peanut brittle and chocolate. I have
read through at least half of the pile of books on the coffee table.
Here's the lesson of this holiday
season: by bowing out of certain expectations, practicing the
act of saying "no" a bit more often, and experimenting with
not having every minute pre-planned and over-scheduled, we have found
a bit of heaven the last two weeks. If there is anything I need
to infuse into my breathless life this year, it is the practice of
quietness, stillness, centering and breathing. Sitting in a
courtyard behind a gallery on Canyon Road, listening to a fountain
bubble behind me, it hits me, not for the first time, that what I
need in 2009 is not more of anything, except for moments like this.
Oh, I have no doubt that my high speed multi-tasking personality will
still function at a frantic pace, but what would happen to my
life--my physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological health--if
there was more nothing, more space, more breathing room in my world?
"I am replacing the desire to be
good with the desire for authenticity," artist Tinka Tarvers
said. "I am replacing the desire for perfection with the desire
for wholeness." Yes, I whispered upon reading
this, and something inside of me quietly, slowly exhales.
November 26th, 2008 :: Extraordinary Days
Although I can hardly wrap my mind around it,
Thanksgiving is upon us. Staring us in the face. Jumping in our
laps, demanding us to Be thankful, damn it!
I love Thanksgiving. It is by far and away
my favorite holiday. I like it because, aside from those awful paper
turkeys you could tastelessly tape in your windows, Hallmark hasn't taken over
this day. I like it because I have fond childhood memories of Thanksgiving
on my grandparents' farm, with dinners of turkey and roast
beef, a million sides of creamy vegetables from the garden, ending with cherry
and apple pies with fruit from Grandpa's trees. Once my grandmother came
to visit us, and Matt persuaded Grandma to teach him to make her piecrust.
Grandma called it, "Bride's Simple Pie Crust." Matt didn't find
it so simple, apparently, because he has never made it again.
I also love Thanksgiving because I love the food,
and any excuse to gather a lot of people around a table to eat is a good one in
my opinion. When we lived in Boston we used to have Thanksgiving at my
cousin's farm in southeastern Massachusetts (a small farm bought, incidentally,
out of my cousin's own nostalgic memories of my grandparents’ farm). Scott's farmhouse and Thanksgiving
table were special indeed, always a merry assortment of cousins and friends,
and food to die for.
But mostly I love Thanksgiving because it is
blessed time off in what is otherwise a dauntingly busy time of year.
Some years we travel, but my favorite Thanksgivings are by far the ones
we stay home. This is one of those years. Some months ago, my
friend Anne invited Matt and me to share Thanksgiving with her family:
"Are you going anywhere this year? No? OK. You are having Thanksgiving with us." But
about a month ago she stood in my kitchen and rescinded the invitation, saying
that they had to go to Austin to visit Dan's brother or some other lame excuse.
(In her defense, I must say that she did this with an extremely guilty
look on her face, but still...) Fortunately, we have lots of
good friends. We accepted an invitation with a family from church --
daughter Katie used to be in Matt's youth choir, but is now away at college.
She and her parents are dear friends. We shudder to imagine that we
are nearly old enough to be Katie parents, and like her folks we are eagerly
awaiting her visit home. (She e-mailed me just this morning: "You
seem really stressed out. Any errands I could run for you of the
non-musical sort?" What a
great kid. We'd happily be her parents.) Jerome, my flute-playing buddy
and frequent collaborator, also sent an invitation our way,
saying that we "probably had never had Thanksgiving with real live
Indians." That is true, and would, no doubt, be a story to tell.
Maybe next year.
This year in particular I am thankful not to cook
or do dishes on Thanksgiving. I say this after a weekend in which I did
little but load and unload the dishwasher. Jerome says that the
"festive season at the Greers’ has begun" and indeed that does seem
to be the case. Several weeks ago, Jerome and I played a recital
together, after which we had a champagne reception at our house.
"If I bring a case of champagne and all the food, can we have the party at
your house?" Jerome had asked me. Of course. Then,
last weekend, we had visiting our dear friends Ken and Beverly.
Ken Medema is a pianist and composer who happens to be blind. I say the last part almost as an aside, because his blindness
is not the most remarkable thing about him. Matt laughs that Ken is the only man who is allowed to walk
up, hug his wife and say, “Hello, gorgeous!” I point out that the man is blind, so one must to take that
into consideration when assessing his judgment. “Oh, but Ken knows,” Matt assures me.
Ken was in town to sing and lead worship at
church, and to do a concert on Matt’s series. He sings and plays the
piano, but his biggest schtick is that he invites audience members to
tell stories, and then improvises a song to illustrate the story --music and lyrics.
The music itself is of such originality that it would be
impressive alone, but the lyrics---they are poetic and profound, and even
rhyme. It is a stunning thing to
see. But that gift should be
balanced with the fact Ken “can’t drive very well,” as one of my little students astutely noted, causing us to laugh.
“Yeah, you’re good, Ken, but you can’t drive,” we reminded him all
A visit from Ken and his wonderful assistant
Beverly, whom we also adore, is reason to pop open more champagne, for sure.
So one night, we had a small group of friends at the house to meet Ken
and Bev. Matt made Algonquin Punch, which was potent
indeed, and many of our closest friends gathered to talk and drink and nibble
cheese. As always, at the end of the evening, Ken graced us with music,
playing his arrangement of "All The Things You Are," which also wove
in "Fly Me To the Moon," and somehow, incredibly, a four-voice fugue
on the first phrase of the original tune. Improvising fugues is one of
Ken's trademarks. "Oh yeah," I said sarcastically to him,
"anyone can do that." Then he made up a song about the evening
-- incorporating the punch and the cookies, the jokes and the stories, the idea
that this was a moment in time that we would always treasure. Everyone
in the room was in tears when he finished, sealing his point completely.
The next morning Ken taught my performance
classes. This was a morning I had been enthusiastically selling to my
students for months. The kids were prepped and ready, "Wow.
He is the opposite of Beethoven" at least four of them told me.
One little girl, remembering our class last spring
with pedagogical composer Dennis Alexander, said, "Cool.
Just like Mr. Alexander. Only blind!"
Not surprisingly, Ken was brilliant with the
kids. A handful performed for him and he made musical suggestions.
I had a couple of students who compose play for him and he helped
with their compositions. One high school kid who has a Friday night gig
at a country club played the arrangement that he had worked out by ear of the
theme from Titanic, after which
Ken proceeded to sit down and play it about a dozen different ways,
demonstrating how the song could be varied. Greg stood behind him with a
grin from ear to ear, just shaking his head. When Ken finished I asked,
"So, what do you think?" to which Greg answered, "I think
this was amazing."
Parents stayed for the classes and raved about
it, one father remarking, "It is so good for the kids to just see what
might be off the charts like this." I agree. This was not
necessarily a class to inspire them in any concrete way, for Ken's ability is
so extraordinary that it isn't something any of us can really aspire to. But
I wanted the kids to rub elbows with this kind of talent for a little while,
for you never know what might stick.
Ken, Bev and Matt went off to do choir
rehearsals in the afternoon in preparation for Sunday's events. I loaded
the dishwasher with another load of wine glasses, vacuumed, put in a pot
roast. Saturday night we had two of our favorite couples—Brad and Karen,
Anne and Dan--over for dinner with Ken and Bev. Sunday was full of church
and the concert, and then dinner in Old Town complete with a pitcher of
Ken has recently re-recorded a song he wrote 30
years ago for the Bicentennial, called “I See America.” There is an underground campaign to get
it to Obama in time for the Inauguration, for it reflects the hope and dreams
that seem tangible these days after the election. It’s been my soundtrack for the last two days, its text
scrolling through my brain this Thanksgiving week…..
I’ve seen the white sand beaches near the town where I was born…..
breathed the mountain air so fresh and green.
But I’ve been in other places where it’s hard to breathe the
and the high-rise nightmare blocks the morning sun.
And once played in the dirty streets
and no one seems to care.
America’s children, look what we have done.
America through the eyes of love,
and I long for all the children to be
And if you see, put your
hand to the job,
there is work that must be done
till freedom’s song is sung
from sea to sea…*
This work week is short, thankfully: two days of
teaching, an extra choir rehearsal to play, and then tomorrow Lora and I are
hitting the mountains at our second attempt at taking La Luz, said to be the
toughest hike in the state. Today is a grey November day; you can taste
winter in the air. Writing this
with a cup of coffee at my elbow, I am acutely aware that there are a lot of
reasons to be thankful this year.
We have families that love us, wonderful friends who fill our lives and
our home with their laughter and music.
In spite of daily warnings about the state of the world, I am more
optimistic than I was four and eight years ago. We have work we love, and are privileged enough to get to
spend our lives doing tangible things that make a difference, nudging the world
in a small way towards futures we believe passionately in. Friday night is our annual St. Cecelia party, another marker in the festive season. It’s time to raise a glass to fact that for another year, we
got away with making a living making music.
I’ve seen the untold millions whose birthplace freedom made,
who nourished by
her dreams grew strong and tall.
I’ve seen them teach their children so that the dream would never fade.
And I’ve seen them stand to answer
But I’ve seen how greed and carelessness can wipe that dream
create a living nightmare in its stead.
Well, rise up children, dream again, for its time for
us to say,
though some may scoff, the dreamers are not dead….*
But this weekend there will also be time for the
stack of books I've been collecting by my bed, maybe a movie or two, some time
alone with just the two of us and the two felines with which we share our home.
I'll raise a glass to that.
see America through the eyes of love,
and I long for all her children to be
And if you see, put your
hand to the job,
there is work that must be done,
till freedom’s song is
and freedom’s bell is rung--from sea to shining sea.*
*I See America music and lyrics by Ken Medema
August 22nd, 2008 :: Extraordinary Days
Recently I was standing in my
kitchen studying a recipe for pizza dough when lightning struck the
70-foot elm tree outside our front courtyard.
I had been meaning to tackle pizzas
for months--going so far as to even write on my summer wish list "learn to make tarts and pizzas". But it has been an
unusual summer. I'm sure this is a character flaw of some
kind, but I tend to develop one great friend from each area or era of my
life going all the way back to high school:
There's Lisa, my
"twiend," separated-at-birth, best friend from high
school. When we were sixteen, we looked so much alike that people could
confuse us. I look back on blurry photos taken from those
years and can't tell who is who. Even now, 20 years later, we
look more alike than not, passing easily as sisters if not twins.
Julianne remains my closest friend from my three semesters at
Trinity University. She lives outside Dallas and still manages
to call several times a month, even while working full-time and
raising three kids.
Missy is my best friend from Mizzou. We
studied with the same teacher, and both practiced too much. We
should have been having more fun; we know that now. She
teaches piano and raises three kids in Springfield, Mo. For my
30th birthday, Matt surprised me by flying Missy to Boston to visit.
She arrived the day we moved into the smallest apartment
imaginable on Beacon Hill. I will always owe her for the days
she spent scrubbing and cleaning and unpacking with me in a horrible
Julia is a soul-mate that I discovered within weeks
of moving to Albuquerque. She had grown up here and was back
for a year of intensive study in flamenco dancing. We became
fast friends and met weekly for coffee. She left the next
summer, but I was in her wedding two years later. This summer
she has been living in Santa Fe, while her husband coaches at SF
Lora is my best friend from Boston, now living around the corner, much to my constant surprise and amazement. She is now my weekly hiking partner, and my permanent cat and plant sitter. She is always up for a drink, an emergency shopping trip, or a day in Santa Fe.
Anne is my
newest dear friend. She's a terrific pianist and a favorite
musical partner. She teaches piano, and raises three brilliant
boys--the oldest, Simon, is in my studio. She and I suffer from the same trait of always juggling ten things at once. Just yesterday, we had an hour to do a rehearsal of a four-hand piece we are performing in a couple of weeks, and it took 50 of those minutes to simply get up to date on one another's life. That left 10 minutes for practicing, which is not setting a good example for our students.
Never have the stars aligned so that
I had multiple best friends in the same place at the same time. But
this summer, it happened. Lora had moved here; Julia was living
nearby; Anne was five minutes away. Thinking tarts sounded
easier than pizza, I started there and in June hosted a dinner.
"Come to Girls' Night with Tarts" (I mean that EXACTLY like it sounds. Tarts, as in the pastry thing.) I invited Julia,
Lora, and Anne. "You making tarts. Now THAT is
something I can get behind," Anne responded enthusiastically.
The tarts were pretty decent. I
made a savory mushroom tart with a corn meal crust. A tomato,
mozzarella, basil tart and a fruit tart for dessert. We drank Campari with soda in the garden, opened a bottle of wine with
dinner, sauteed green beans in butter, nibbled on cheese and olives.
It was a good night.
If only life wasn't so busy. I
thought the summer would be full of such evenings. But alas!
My regular life of teaching and performing got in the way.
Lora, Julia and I went to see "Sex and the City" one
afternoon. There was the "ladies hike" with Anne and
Lora, and a day puttering around Santa Fe with Julia. Various
spontaneous drinks, dinners and walks in the neighborhood with Lora.
I have hardly seen Anne, except for quick drop-offs for
Simon's piano lessons.
But back to the "learn to make
tarts AND pizzas" goal, which I was determined to see through.
Tarts weren't exactly easy, I discovered. Would pizzas be
harder? After all, there was yeast involved in pizza crusts,
something I generally try to avoid. But here I was standing in
the kitchen trying to figure out the pizza crust recipe when the
loudest thunder I have ever heard exploded around me.
wasn't immediately aware of what just happened. I glanced out
the window to see dozens of birds taking flight. The air
looked, well, struck, for lack of a better word. The
cats streaked by me in panic. At that moment, I realized with alarm,
my beloved husband was sitting in a bathtub full of water, perhaps
having just been electrocuted. I called out, "Matt.
MATT!" "Yeah," he answered casually, "that
On closer inspection, it wasn't just
loud. The lightning had struck our huge old tree down the
middle. It had also (pierced? burned? what would be the correct verb here?) a hole right through the strawbale wall in our front courtyard. Smoke was pouring out of the hole in the wall; limbs, leaves and bits of wood were
everywhere. Neighbors whom I had never met began spilling out of
their houses to examine the damage. Cars slowed down, one man
claiming he had seen it from down the street. A guy living
across the street came to gawk. I have seen him around, said hello to him when we passed on the sidewalk. But as we were standing there
staring at the wreckage, I realized that I had either been struck by
lightning myself and was seeing double, or this young man has an identical
twin standing next to him. I have been greeting one or the
other of them for years now, not realizing there were two of them.
It was a surreal moment.
They say that lightning only strikes
once, and probably never again will I have so many good friends
living nearby. But given this fact, I wasn't about to let this
year's birthday celebration go ignored. After the last
performance of the summer, we invited a group of friends over for
ice cream cake and champagne, new friends and old rubbing shoulders
for a few hours. At the last minute, our dear friends from
Texas, Mary and Glenn, came, which was more icing on the cake
than any birthday girl deserves. Anne and
Dan, the die-hards who are always ready to finish the last bottle of champagne after every party, stayed late enough to eat eggs with us at 1am, . The evening was one of those strange slices of life,
friends gathered from different periods. It happens at
weddings, when most of us can't appreciate it (In our case, Matt and I were too young to have collected the treasures of friends we have
now). Lora said later that she could only imagine such a
gathering of her friends at her funeral. What a gift to be
around to enjoy it.
Lightning only strikes once. And
that pizza? Amazing.
July 27th, 2008 :: Extraordinary Days
One Saturday morning last month at the bright hour of 5:30am, my friends, Anne and Lora, and I gathered in my sunroom to mark the beginning of the first ever Ladies Hike. Living near the mountains and genuine wilderness areas has whetted my appetite for hiking, something I had previously abandoned after a childhood spent dragging baloney sandwiches and tepid water up Colorado mountains with my family. Matt and I win no records for our hiking attempts, but we manage to get out to the Sandias every few months for an hour or two. We are pretty pathetic though, as can be seen in our inability to actually stay on a trail. We don't intend to rough it, we just find ourselves wandering through the brush and running into cacti, having lost the path completely. I thought it would be good to go hiking with someone who knows the trails and the mountains, and could therefore introduce me to places I would never manage to locate on my own. I had been talking about getting a group of women together to go hiking, and one evening at a dinner party mentioned it to our friend Kent, who is a serious hiker. "Would you consider taking a group of ladies on a hike sometime?" I asked him. "Sure," he replied and so plans began and a date was set.
I was certain I could collect a fun group of women, but when the day was finally decided and the start time of 6am determined, I was amazed at how many formally enthusiastic ladies were suddenly "very busy" at 6am. (And 6am was a compromise. Kent thinks all summer hikes should begin at dawn, avoiding heat and sun issues.) So in the end, it was only three decidedly girly women who embarked upon the Ladies Hike. Anne's first words that morning were, "Is the coffee on?" which I think says much about our lack of familiarity with that time of day. I was barely managing to get my shoes on; nothing as complicated as making coffee was happening. So caffeine-deprived and blurry-eyed, we drove to the trailhead to meet our fearless leader. Our first indication that this was not going to be quite the "stroll through nature" that we had imagined (picture ladies carrying parasols) was Kent getting out of his off-road vehicle a pair of what can only be described as serious hiking poles with grip-like things. Eyeing these suspiciously, I asked for clarification, "You said, 30 minutes in and 30 minutes out, right?" reminding him of our conversation earlier that week. After all, Anne was concerned about having enough time for pancakes, and Lora thought that if the hike time equalled the breakfast time to follow we were on the right track.
"Well," Kent admitted, "30 minutes would be really pushing it, but we should be able to get up there in 50 minutes." Keep that in mind, he said 50 MINUTES.
From there he took off on what can only be called a sprint through the foothills, the three of us panting to keep up with him. At one point, he turns around and graciously says, "Amy, why don't you lead so you can set the pace?" At which time he must have thought we had slowed down to a crawl, but Lora and Anne later assured me that I was still moving plenty fast enough.
After about 45 minutes of this sprint, we reached the first of the many rock-climbing passages in the canyon:
....which looks more innocent than it really was. In truth, it constituted 4th and 5th class moves. (See "Terminology" footnote for definitions of all technical hiking-related terms.) Lora began swearing in her charming colorful vocabulary, all of us abandoned any hope of pancakes in the next century. If we made it out alive we'd be doing good, we thought, as we started making bargains with the devil.
At this point, we have been hiking for 50 minutes. (See above: "50 minutes should do it.")
For the next two hours, the madness continued as three girly women tried to "scramble," "chimney," and "parallel bar" over rocks and up cliffs in an attempt to keep up with Kent. By this time I am convinced, this man is not a human being after all, but a mountain goat. "At what point this week," I said to him huffing and puffing, "did you think that this would be the ideal 'ladies' hike?" He smiled, motivated by the thought that he would never have to drag women up a mountain again.
Where were we headed anyway? To this point.....
Which looks like nothing, but constituted a 1300 foot gain in 1.75 miles, which is roughly one foot in elevation for every 2 feet forward. In other words, nothing to be scoffed at.
Kent called this the "Forbidden City" hike, which impressed me, until I realized that he made up the name. In fact, he made up the whole damn hike. Nowhere in one of those lovely guides to hiking in the Sandias were you going to find this hike. Nor would you be able to replicate it on your own. For although I had visions of learning new beautiful trails via Kent and his years of expertise, it has, in fact, been years since he actually has done a real trail as would be published in a Sandia Hiking Guide.
Two+ hours later, we made it to the top. During the last scramble across the rocks, Lora dropped her prescription sunglasses, leading her to express herself in more colorful language, and Kent, our intrepid leader, to chimney down in the crevices to rescue them. We three ladies were sunning ourselves on the pinnacle, taking in the view:
....when Lora turned around, now wearing the prescription sunglasses that Kent has retrieved, and said, "There's a snake."
Immediately behind us, not 6 inches away from Anne's butt, was a rattlesnake. (From this point forward referred to as a "rattler.")
At this point, I would love to show you a picture of the rattler, but I didn't stop long enough to take one. You'll have to do with the "I survived a rattler" (not to mention Kent's "Ladies Hike") photo:
From this moment on, having braved hanging out on a rock in the sun with a rattler, nothing could faze us. We happily traversed down the mountain chatting merrily of kitchen renovations and what food might be eaten in such a kitchen, and what food had been eaten in other kitchens in the last month, as well as what was planned to be eaten at breakfast that day and in the next month, all to Kent's amusement. We made no record speed, mind you, but considering the climb up, this "walk back" to the car flew by, allowing us to get back to the parking lot in a record slow finish time of 3 and a half hours. Yes, that would be 3 and a half hours. (See "30 minutes in, 30 minutes out").
So with the first ever ladies hike behind us, we are ready to plan the next one (sans rattlers). Who's in?
Later, over pancakes and scramblers (not to be confused with rattlers), we agreed that it had been an amazing morning (how quickly you forget the pain. Is this like childbirth?). Even though Anne and Lora admitted, "Amy, we thought we were going to die," given enough recovery time, we just might do it again. After all, being the opposite of Outward Bound types, none of us had ever had an experience like this before.
The next day talking over the hike with Kent's wife Jacque, she sympathized, "Amy, I thought you knew what you were getting into." Uh, no. (See the "30 minutes in, 30 minutes out" or "50 minutes should do it" quotes as to my state of mind and mental--not to mention physical--preparation.)
I spent the rest of the day on the couch. Jacque said Kent was worn out too. Apparently he reported to her that it was tough to go at that "slow pace." Whatever. "Amy, we thought we were going to die," is a better, more accurate description of this experience.
*For those brave enough to join the next Ladies Hike, here's some technical hiking terminology you should know:
PUTTING UP A ROUTE: This means that you are not actually following an actual trail from the Sandia Hiking Guide. Instead, you are forging your own path through the wilderness. (Think "Road Less Traveled"). While Kent acted like he knew where he was going, in all likelihood we were actually "putting up a route."
WATER-POLISHED ROCKS: rocks so smooth that we will certainly slide right off of them onto our butts.
SCRAMBLING, CHIMNEYING, PARALLEL BARRING: These terms pertain to the actual climbing of rock cliffs. Lora, in particular, was quite gifted at chimneying, which involves going up on your butt. Several times, Kent recommended that Anne "parallel bar" between two big rocks, which given her long legs was the best option. My technique involved a lot of falling back on yoga-trained flexibility and putting myself in the zen place of "maybe if I imagine I am not doing this, it will go away."
3RD, 4TH, AND 5TH CLASS MOVES: Also, rock climbing terms, 5th class being the most difficult moves. Make no mistake about it, we did 5th class moves.
TRAVERSE: This is what you do to come back down the mountain post rattler.
FORBIDDEN CITY, TOILET BOWL CANYON, HAPPY FACE CANYON, LITTLE MAN TRAIL: These are all made-up names and routes forged by Kent and his buddies. None of these constitute a "ladies" hike.
PINNACLE: highest point in the rock climb, where rattlers hide out.
(A million thanks to Kent for braving the first ever ladies hike and for putting up with our tortoise-like pace, not to mention Lora's language. And for finding Lora's sunglasses, which contributed to Lora sighting the rattler. We're ready to take on your hikes again. Next time we'll make t-shirts to mark the achievement.)
June 7th, 2008 :: Extraordinary Days
We have had the windiest spring
ever. Day after day, the gusts knock us senseless, rendering gardening and bicycling impossible. The season itself seems confused, the normal schedule of blooms following no particular pattern this year. Some flowers were super early, others very late. The forsythia bloomed before Valentine's Day, but the poppies (usually a spring break fiesta) only started appearing recently. This has been both wonderful and disconcerting at the same time. On one hand, having the season unfold in slow motion has allowed me to really enjoy every stage. On the other hand, I find myself wondering what is going on, missing the predictable arrival of poppies in March, tulips in April, roses in May. One week the temperature shot up giving us days of 80 degrees, then unexpectedly the temperature plummeted and the next morning we woke up to snow on the mountains. The next week the same thing happened: we had record high in the mid-90's; but then it rained and overnight the mountain peaks had a new fresh layer of white. Unbelievable.
Maybe every year is unpredictable and I just haven't noticed before. Or maybe it is just another sign of the rootedness I am beginning to feel here, that I might think I know how a season should unfold in this landscape. I am having an unexpected love affair with New Mexico at the moment, brought on, I imagine, by seeing this state through a newcomer's eyes. With my friend Lora moving around the corner, I find myself introducing to her (and to myself with delicious freshness) the wonders of living here. She calls with questions about hardware stores and restaurants, dry-cleaners and nurseries, and I discover in answering her that I know this city well--my affection for neighborhoods and businesses and people coming through. This summer we pass the five-year anniversary of living here--a monumental landmark
for us. Already I see the difference: in various ways I have loved every place we lived, but moving every few years meant that most of my energy was spent on the act of creation: creating a life, creating a reputation, building a studio, establishing rewarding playing gigs. While a certain amount of recreating and tweaking will always be necessary, my efforts these days are different. For the first time, I have the pleasure of teaching students for the long haul--seeing their progress over many years and watching them develop into fine young musicians, versus starting a group of enthusiastic youngsters and then handing them to another teacher just when they might take off . I now have musical partners with whom I have played multiple concerts and recitals, our collaborations reaching new depths and comfort. At home, I am beginning to sense the danger of not moving, for it forces me to clean out every drawer and closet. Already the basement is turning into a default "Oh, just put that downstairs," black hole. Yet at the same time, the house and garden are assuming a gentle grace of living that reflects our lives: the Adirondack chairs in the backyard becoming part of our summer evening landscapes, the canisters of dried beans, nuts and fruits living on the kitchen windowsill, the herbs in the courtyard an easy step away when cooking.
Even events have found a certain ease and routine: the night Matt takes his youth choir to the Santa Fe Opera every summer, the dinner we hold for the high school seniors in the choir every fall, the twice-yearly studio recitals, the annual get-away to Taos in October, the big St. Cecelia party the Friday night before Thanksgiving. Since when were these things we "always" did, I wonder? And yet here we are, expecting these occasions every year. I look forward to the beginning of the downtown farmers market every June, wait with anticipation for the first whiff of roasting green chile every August, count the days until we can do our trip to Santa Fe to take in the holiday decor every December.
As I write this, I am back to teaching, my between-semesters break before the summer session behind me. It seems I have "always" had this break, although really this is a custom of the past few years, born out of necessity due to travel schedules. But my families now expect this break, and this year especially I am happy to oblige. We all needed a rest before buckling down to the business of summer lessons and schedules. For my part, I needed time to get a few pleasurable summer pursuits in place. The last two weeks I dipped into a pile of guilt-free, no-work reading for the first time. I put on five coats of bright weatherproof yellow paint on an outdoor table and giddily spray-painted five folding-chairs loud happy colors. I put in the last of the season's plants and got a basil plant going outside my sun-room door. I re-potted the kitchen cacti and set outside for the summer. I planted a gorgeous yellow climbing rose ("Golden Showers") outside the French doors into my courtyard, and dug up some baby agave cacti pups that had sprouted up around their mothers. These I potted in big ceramic pots to set in the courtyard, hoping to convince them to fill out their new homes.
As always after a long semester, the first thing my body did was rebel and sleep. Ten-hour nights weren't long enough, I still found myself dozing on the couch in the afternoon, my system crashing after months of being "on." Suddenly, my highly efficient routines went out the window; it took me all day to practice a few hours. My e-mails went unanswered; I forgot to return phone calls. One weekend I hardly dressed, puttering around the house all day in my pajamas. Wearing sunglasses and sloppy gardening clothes, I went to Frontier to buy tortillas incognito, hiding behind my grubbiness, my blissfulness at not having to obey regular rituals of bathing or doing my hair.
This has been the first time in recent history that a break from working didn't involve traveling. It couldn't this time, as both Matt and I had performances over the weekend, but it was still a pleasant shock to realize how much this time felt like a vacation nonetheless. I spent a morning puttering around Old Town looking for something to wear for my performance with the symphony. It had been years--literally--since I had made time to go to Old Town, real life and demanding schedules taking precedence. I had forgotten how charming it is--the old adobe buildings and winding courtyards with their tiny low-ceiling shops. It may be a ten-minute bus ride away, but it feels like a whole new city to explore: even the vegetation is different than my neighborhood: big old cottonwoods cover the square, the ruffled hollyhocks were already blooming--growing up through every crack in the bricks and patios. One Saturday morning, Matt woke me up before six to go hiking. We were on the east side of the mountains by 6:45am and climbed for an hour without seeing a soul. Another night Matt and I went to Betty's Bath and Spa in the North Valley--another part of the city I rarely visit-- to spend an hour in a private hot tub, and then afterwards dine at Los Mananitas, a New Mexican restaurant nearby. On this particular night, the place was empty, the old building crumbling around us, a cat sleeping in a chair nearby as we feasted on posole and fajitas. The place is said to be haunted--I'm buying it, both charmed and spooked by its eeriness. "We could be in Taos," I said to Matt. "It has that old runned-down feel." Later, making our way back to our neighborhood, we were astonished to notice that we were only 15 minutes from home. It felt like another country, which only goes to remind us that we don't have to go far around here to have an adventure.
I need more adventures like that--more small escapes that remind me anew why I might just be in love with this city and this landscape. The longer I live here, the more I need to infuse my daily routines with newness and novelty if I am going to be able to balance the boredom of familiar routines with the security of deep roots. As it turns out, the last two weeks proved to be the best vacation ever, juggling a few hours work with a lot of play every day. It was also the easiest vacation to recover from--because we continued to work throughout, it took less effort to overcome the inertia of laziness to pick up our normal routines again.
Actually there has been nothing normal about the last week. On Friday, I picked up my mother at the airport. Friday night I was one of the pianists for the Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals with the New Mexico Symphony. The performance was at the zoo, their final concert of the season. Some 3,400 people were in the audience, which is stunning considering I have lived in towns smaller than that. On Sunday afternoon Matt's choir, joined by choirs directed by our friends Brad Ellingboe and Sid Davis, performed the choral work The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins with orchestra. The work is a Mass for Peace with texts from the traditional Mass interspersed by poetry about war. It is a powerful piece, and the two performances Sunday were stunning. But needless to say, all this made for a stressful, highly social weekend (as rehearsals were interspersed with dinner parties and evenings out). Monday morning I participated in a Dalcroze workshop with Dr. Julia Black from Seattle. Tuesday night I hosted a dinner party for Julia and friends--drinks in the backyard, dinner in the courtyard under the stars. All week I skipped and pranced ("How are the eighth-notes going in your feet?" Matt loves to ask.), and then rushed home to several hours of teaching. Last night I saw my last lesson end at nine. I would hardly recognize normal life if it came and hit me in the face.
As fun as it all has been, I'm ready to get back to my boring little existence. Even the task of putting laundry out on the line sounds satisfying at the moment, ready as I am to dive into the essence of summering. There's a watermelon in the fridge and a friend coming over tonight for drinks. "Champagne and hors d'oeuvres in the garden, what could be better?" another friend wrote after an evening together recently. She's right. And we have a whole summer--a whole summer--ahead of us.
November 12th, 2007 :: Extraordinary Days
My husband is the youngest of five children. I am the oldest of five. Matt and I have been married for thirteen years. In that time, not one of our siblings has gotten married, all of them remaining single or in long-term, but unmarried, relationships. Last April, surprising us all, my brother David announced that he was getting married. He had met a girl on the internet and, after a few weekend visits, they had decided to get married. “I wandered into the wrong room and met the right man,” JoDee told us later, describing how the two of them had met on a free Yahoo chat room shortly after Thanksgiving last year. He is 31, she 28, and they each had been visiting chat rooms divided by age group: 20’s, 30’s and so on. “What are you doing here?” David asked when she identified herself: Single. Female. 28. “You are in the wrong room!” Typical David, both to reach out to someone who doesn’t belong and to be perfectly blunt in doing so. From that inauspicious opening, however, the relationship took off, the two of them chatting for hours every night. As characteristic of David’s private nature, he did not breathe a word of this budding relationship to the family until she came to visit one weekend in January. Even so, his casual announcement about their engagement caught us all off guard, “Hello Mom. Is Dad there? I need to talk to him about a wedding.”
Needless to say, we all had reservations about this engagement. After all, it happened so quickly, miles apart from one another. Could they possibly know each other well enough to get married, we asked each other. Does David know what he is doing? He doesn’t have a long string of past relationships to compare with or learn from. Maybe this girl was equally inexperienced, and if so, were they rushing blindly into this? In spite of our reservations, a late September wedding date in St. Louis was set, and plans began forming.
This would be a momentous occasion in another way. Due to crossed schedules and busy lives, the five kids in my family had not been home at the same time for years. Mom and Dad recently had put their home on the market and bought a new smaller condo in St. Louis. Returning home would not be “home” anymore. There was the question of where we would all sleep and how we would all get fed. Most importantly, in a family of musicians, who was going to be in charge of the music at the ceremony?
We began arriving for the weekend on a Wednesday. My brother Bob, and my Aunt Jan arrived first. Immediately, Jan began baking cake and arranging flowers. Matt and I flew in Thursday night, meeting JoDee and greeting a new, prouder and more confident David. My sisters Beth and Sarah and their boyfriends arrived from New York on Friday. They checked into the hotel, Matt and I took over the guest room, and Bob slept on the couch downstairs in front of the big screen, high-definition television. We began discussing who would play what music at the wedding and ran errands to the drycleaners and the grocery store for more powered sugar and cream. Beth went to get a manicure and the guys left for haircuts. Cousins and their children began arriving into town. Dad went into serious introverted withdrawal. At 5pm on Friday night, with the catered rehearsal dinner for 40 people to be held at the condo just hours away, the plumbing backed up. “Roots,” the plumber announced when called, “And I can’t do anything about it until at least tomorrow.” Frantically, we changed clothes and headed off to the church, leaving aunts and uncles in charge of the catering and the dicey plumbing.
At the rehearsal, we met JoDee’s family who had arrived from Indiana, and settled the music details. Dad, who was performing the ceremony, went into work-mode, giving him a welcomed distraction from the emotional toll of the weekend. After the rehearsal, we returned to the condo, now full of out-of-towns guests and relatives and a table full of barbeque. Quickly, the five kids and our partners filled plates with food and headed out to the deck, spending several hours laughing and catching up, rather oblivious to the party going on inside. “How did you two get together,” we asked JoDee eagerly. “David won’t tell us.” We heard about Beth’s obsessive-compulsive roommate and Sarah’s business plans for opening a boutique. We exchanged memories and retold favorite old stories. We have needed such an evening for years, living so far away from each other. Even in the best of situations, we are a disparate bunch, a mixture of adopted and biological siblings, each with our own strong personality. Bob is a personal trainer in Cincinnati. The girls both live in New York: Beth is a professional jazz musician. Sarah is a buyer for Armani Exchange. David has worked a series of retail jobs in St. Louis. Each of us is full of excuses (valid or not) of why we don’t stay in better contact with one another. Only the two New Yorkers see each other regularly, as they live in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. The rest of us depend upon Mom to act as a messenger between us, going months without talking to one another. In a fragile world, these siblings ties are growing more and more shaky, as we, for all our similarities and shared history, drift farther and farther apart.
At midnight, the food put away and the kitchen cleaned up, Matt and I moved to the hotel, not wanting to add our contribution to the growing plumbing problem in the basement. We get up the next morning and put in a day’s work—decorating the room where the church reception was to be held, practicing for several hours, running countless trips from the condo to the church with carloads of cake and decorations, gifts and clothes. Late in the afternoon, we gathered for pictures. Who are we? I wondered as I looked at these beautiful family members, dressed in their wedding finery. Mom was stunning in a floor-length black dress with a dusty blue jacket, carrying the evening bag and wearing the diamonds inherited from her grandmother. Dad, who as a minister does countless weddings a year, was simply dressed for work. Bob was parading around in a new black suit. My always-fashionable sisters were gorgeous in navy dresses. Beth, staring at my red dress, muttered that maybe I didn’t get the memo about the colors. I shot back that I had asked if I had to wear blue and was told I could wear whatever I wanted. I wanted to wear red. I always want to wear red.
Our 90 year-old grandmother arrived in a wheelchair, escorted by my aunt and uncle. She has been failing in the last year, dementia taking over more and more of what was once her sharp mind. In the weeks prior to the wedding, when agitated, she would tell my parents that she was going to “run away.” “You don’t want to do that,” my mother would say to her, “the kids are all coming home soon. Don’t you want to see the kids?”
Well, yes, she would admit, she did want to see the kids. Daily her mind continues to go, sadly this may be her last great memory. “We’re all here,” we greeted her as she came into the church. “Grandma, everyone is here.”
At some point, Beth and her boyfriend began the music, easing us into the evening with their saxophone and guitar duo. The touch of your hand is like heaven, a heaven I’ve never known…my one and only love… they played as the guests were seated. I played Brahms’ A Major Intermezzo, Op. 118 as the grandmothers were escorted down the aisle. Matt sang as the mothers came in. Beth’s boyfriend joined me for the bridesmaid processional. David’s church choir sang while the bride walked down the aisle with her brother, and suddenly, we were all in place.
“We are now going to interrupt this concert to have a wedding,” my dad announced as the congregation chuckled. Many have watched us grow up playing music and had a special interest to see us as now professional musicians at work. How fitting for David, who as much as all of us, spent years and years in music lessons. Concert over, the ceremony began, Bob wiping his nose repeatedly on his new black suit. Watching the couple, I found myself marveling at the surprises life throws us. After all, the chance of these two finding one another were laughable. Like many people, both of them might have imagined that they might never have a chance at marriage or a family. While their stories of personal heartache and loneliness are their stories to tell, not mine, the likelihood of any of us being there witnessing their marriage was astonishing. I realized that in the purest sense, us coming together to celebrate the two of them had made us all behave better towards one another, had made us even for a short time believe once again in the simplicity of love, romance and the importance of family relationships. No doubt, all too soon we would once again revert to harboring old grudges and not trying hard enough to connect with one another, but for tonight David and JoDee had managed to bring out the best in all of us. As the ceremony continued, Dad spoke to the couple, and using an Old Testament lesson of the Israelites in exile as a model, he talked about the common human condition of feeling like a stranger in a alien place. He told them that no matter how exiled or lonely they may have felt in their lives, that in finding one another they had finally found home. Vigorously, they both nodded their agreement, sealing his words. All at once, David was married, and marched his bride down the aisle. The music began again, and the night’s celebrations unfolded—music, dancing, food and conversations with friends, the romance of a wedding doing its magic on each of us. I suppose that’s why we bother with weddings in the first place, because somehow in the grand overblown affair that nearly every wedding becomes, we can believe that anything is possible, that lifelong romance is as simple as saying “I do”, that love conquers all. It is a cliché. I think that’s the point.
Their honeymoon delayed for several weeks, JoDee and David spent much of the next day with the rest of us—opening presents, and eating leftover barbeque and wedding cake. We made a run to Ted Drewes, the famous St. Louis frozen custard joint. The sisters had a coffee date, laughing and crying over shared confidences. We made one last trip to see Grandma in the nursing home, bringing her a piece of cake. “The music was so beautiful,” she kept repeating to herself. “The music was so beautiful.” “We love you, Grandma,” we answered her. “And look! We’re all here.”
Weeks later, we are scattered once again across the country. JoDee and David are settling into their new married lives, with four coffeemakers and five sets of silverware and what seems like hundreds of other gifts, which must be somehow stuffed into their tiny apartment. Mom reports that there is still wedding cake in the freezer. The other day, I picked up my dress from the drycleaners and hung it back in my closet where it will wait for the next wedding. While David and JoDee have not known each other long, they consider themselves lucky to have found one another and are determined to make this marriage work. They have as much chance as any of us. I browse the photos and smile, remembering.
Thanks to Gerald Wiens (Uncle Gary) for use of photographs
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org