December 27th, 2009 :: Reading Days
From this high midtown hall, undecked with boughs, unfortified with mistletoe, we send forth our tinselled greetings as of old, to friends, to readers, to strangers of many conditions in many places.
Merry Christmas to uncertified accountants, to tellers who have made a mistake in addition, to girls who have made a mistake in judgment, to grounded airline passengers, and to all those who canít eat clams!
We greet with particular warmth people who wake and smell smoke. To captains of river boats on snowy mornings we send an answering toot at this holiday time. Merry Christmas to intellectuals and other despised minorities! Merry Christmas to the musicians of Muzak and men whose shoes donít fit! Greetings of the season to unemployed actors and the blacklisted everywhere who suffer for sins uncommitted; a holly thorn in the thumb of compilers of lists!
Greetings to wives who canít find their glasses and to poets who canít find their rhymes! Merry Christmas to the unloved, the misunderstood, the overweight. Joy to the authors of books whose titles begin with the word ďHowĒ (as though they knew!). Greetings to people with a ringing in their ears; greetings to growers of gourds, to shearers of sheep, and to makers of change in the lonely underground booths! Merry Christmas to old men asleep in libraries! Merry Christmas to people who canít stay in the same room with a cat! We greet, too, the boarders in boarding hoses on 25 December, the duennas in Central Park in fair weather and foul, and young lovers who got nothing in the mail. Merry Christmas to people who plant trees in city streets; merry Christmas to people who save prairie chickens from extinction! Greetings of a purely mechanical sort to machines that thinkĖplus a sprig of artificial holly. Joyous Yule to Cadillac owners whose conduct is unworthy of their car! Merry Christmas to the defeated, the forgotten, the inept; joy to all dandiprats and bunglers! We send, most particularly and most hopefully, our greetings and our prayers to soldiers and guardsmen on land and sea and in the airĖthe young men doing the hardest things at the hardest time of life. To all such, Merry Christmas, blessings, and good luck!
We greet the Secretaries-designate, the President-elect; Merry Christmas to our new leaders, peace on earth, good will, and good management! Merry Christmas to couples unhappy in doorways! Merry Christmas to all who think they are in love but arenít sure! Greetings to people waiting for trains that will take them in the wrong direction, to people doing up a bundle and the string is too short, to children with sleds and no snow! We greet ministers who canít think of a moral, gagmen who canít think of a joke. Greetings, too, to the inhabitants of other planets; see you soon!
And last, we greet all skaters on small natural ponds at the edge of woods toward the end of afternoon. Merry Christmas, skaters! Ring, steel! Grow red, sky! Die down, wind! Merry Christmas to all and to all a good morrow!
December 20th, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
This morning I was reading a book about gardening and Zen meditation entitled Gardening at the Dragon's Gate by Wendy Johnson. In it, the author was describing the conflict between practicing zazen, or seated meditation, from 4-6AM every day, with the practical realities of life on the farm---the call of the cows needing to be milked first thing in the morning, the babies still sleeping in their cribs who wake up and need to be fed and cared for. "How do grown-ups practice Zen?" she writes, repeating a question asked by a fellow Zen student.
I understand this conflict of competing attentions and pulls all too well. Ideally, my life would look something like this: I would get up while it was still dark, meditate and do yoga for an hour, read and write for another hour or two, practice for several hours, and then start my teaching day. At the other end of my work day, I would have energy and attention to cook a real dinner with my husband, and eat it by candlelight. I would spend more time in meditation and yoga before going to bed. Let me assure you, however, that my days look nothing like this. While I am convinced that such a disciplined ritualized schedule would be transformative to my work and my soul, real life in the waning days of 2009 does nothing to help me maintain such practices. I manage some of this, some days, but unless I am going to leave my little noisy corner of the world and move to a deserted island somewhere I have no hope of maintaining this for the long haul.
So, to rephrase a question, how do grown-ups practice their art? How do we find and follow the spiritual threads of our work? How do we do better than a merely perfunctory attempt at juggling the many roles and obligations that are required of us on a daily basis? These are questions I struggle with hourly, as I find myself living squarely between the pragmatic and the ideal, the messy complicated reality of my life and the sacred, holy space where my art and my spirit intertwine.
For whatever reason, these sorts of questions appear especially pronounced this time of year. A cursory glance at past journals reveals that this is always the case. Somehow, I find myself vacillating between wanting to drown myself in the festivities and spirit of the holidays, and wanting to renounce this world and its material pulls and to go live an austere life far away from the tinsel and glitter that is otherwise threatening to bury me alive. Of course, I recognize that any honest living is always a dance between this world and the next, between the messiness of our daily routines and obligations and a fierce longing for something bigger and grander and more holy than the sparkles and glamour of the season. How do we practice our art and feed our souls in such a place of tension? How do we dance on the line between living completely in our current lives and honoring practices that support our spiritual ones?
These are the questions of my soul as I go about the tasks that make up my days. The fact that this conflict of interest is happening just when I can hardly force myself to work given all the distractions of the season proves once again that someone in charge has a sense of humor. I'm finishing the last lessons of the semester, so ready for a three-week break I can almost taste it. Every lesson during this last week is a test of will power, as I call upon every ounce of patience and adult behavior within me. It's all I can do not to just cancel them all, and abandon myself to the sheer joy of vacation days. But instead of giving into the temptation of succumbing completely to the chocolate in my kitchen and the pile of novels on my coffee table, I practice the art of discipline as the days get shorter and the year winds down to an end. I clean my house and go to the grocery store, trying to keep up with tasks that keep the household running and that also, strangely enough, anchor me firmly to my world. I stand in outrageously long lines at the post office, waiting to mail a pile of Christmas cards. I read through new music, making lists of repertoire for my students. I study for the GRE, attempting to learn the math I happily, purposefully, forgot some 20 years ago. I make my way through piles of books and journals, determined to make a dent in the backlog of reading that has collected in the past few months. I make soup and roast a pan of chicken thighs, small acts of healthy cooking in a month otherwise completely taken over by sugar consumption. I practice, learning a Bach suite and other music for several upcoming recitals. I go to yoga classes, stretching my body and mind into unfamiliar shapes. All the while, I wrestle with metaphysical questions of existence and choices, listening for the voices of truth within the clamor of noise on my time and attention. "How do grown-ups practice Zen?" Johnson was asked. "How do grownups practice Christmas?" I ask, and practice sitting quietly, listening for the answer.
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.
December 6th, 2009 :: Reading Days
They sit around the house
Not doing much of anything: the boxed set
Of the complete works of Verdi, unopened.
The complete Proust, unread:
The French-cut silk shirts
Which hang like expensive ghosts in the closet
And make me look exactly
Like the kind of middle-aged man
Who would wear a French-cut silk shirt:
The reflector telescope I thought would unlock
The mysteries of the heavens
But which I only used once or twice
To try to find something heavenly
In the window of the high-rise down the road,
And which now stares disconsolately at the ceiling
When it could be examining the Crab Nebula:
The 30-day course in Spanish
Whose text I never opened,
Whose dozen cassette tapes remain unplayed,
Save for Tape One, where I never learned
Whether the suave American
Conversing with a sultry-sounding desk clerk
At a Madrid hotel about the possibility
Of obtaining a room,
Actually managed to check in.
I like to think
That one thing led to another between them
And that by Tape Six or so
Theyíre happily married
And raising a bilingual child in Seville or Terra Haute.
But Iíll never know.
Suddenly I realize
I have constructed the perfect home
For a sexy, Spanish-speaking astronomer
Who reads Proust while listening to Italian arias,
And I wonder if somewhere in this teeming city
There lives a woman with, say,
A fencing foil gathering dust in the corner
Near her unused easel, a rainbow of oil paints
Drying in their tubes
On the table where the violin
She bought on a whim
Lies entombed in the permanent darkness
Of its locked case
Next to the abandoned chess set,
A woman who has always dreamed of becoming
The kind of woman the man Iíve always dreamed of becoming
Has always dreamed of meeting,
And while the two of them discuss star clusters
And Cťzanne, while they fence delicately
In Castilian Spanish to the strains of Rigoletto,
She and I will stand in the steamy kitchen,
Fixing up a little risotto,
Enjoying a modest cabernet,
While talking over a day so ordinary
As to seem miraculous.
- George Bilgere