June 30th, 2006
These are the things I have learned recently:
If you put pink and white petunias in the same pot, the white ones soon will become streaked with pink.
Even geraniums labeled "full-sun" can't survive the full sun of my desert yard.
If it grows fast, it must be a weed.
That all of these insights should happen in the garden surprises me not at all, as I know so little about gardening. That I should care one whit about any of this surprises me most of all. After all, wasn't it just a few short years ago I was living merrily in a tiny apartment in Boston, where the only thing growing was my shoe collection? Sometimes I wake up at night and wonder how I got here. Here: Albuquerque, New Mexico burdened under the care of a house, garden, and two cats. All of this stuff: the grand piano in the living room, the thousands of books, the dozens of plants, the china cabinet full of glassware and pottery, the iPod and cell phones, microwave and coffee grinderů.how did a couple of people who sold their cars and china and moved to Boston on a whim, end up back like this?
Truth is, I could have lived in Boston forever, and never would the domestic gene that winds around my genetic code reared its fussy head. I loved the simplicity of that life; the lack of cares and responsibility; the pure minimalism of our belongings. It isn't somehow better to be burdened with all this ownership, whatever the American Dream may tell you.
And yet. I'd be lying if I said that the piece of art we bought last weekend–the green blown-glass vase that sits proudly on our mantle–doesn't make me happy on some level. I'd be lying if I said I don't love throwing dinner parties and having all the accoutrements: the sparkling stemware, the brightly colored pottery, the big table with candles gleaming. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that tackling and conquering the garden is a great challenge and pleasure: there is nothing like filling my house with my own roses and cutting my own lavender to scent drawers and oils. And as much as I hate to admit it, heating up leftovers is easier with a microwave and having a cell phone is convenient at times. I'd sell my soul before I'd give up my grand piano, and well, for the cats, there is simply nothing I'd wouldn't do to keep them safe and healthy.
So how do I reconcile this? Have I changed so much in such a small amount of time? Or is it simply that as time goes on I become more and more myself---including embracing all those hidden domestic genes? How can we be so happily both–the musician with the great shoe wardrobe living in a city apartment AND the woman with the husband, house, cats and garden contentedly performing on a much smaller scale? How many different lives is it possible to live? And how many more might be ahead of me?
Reading old journals from the summer of the move, I am struck by how surprised I was by so many aspects of desert living. I count how many times I mentioned the awe-inspiring open space of this state, and how utterly intimidated I was by its sheer emptiness. I was right to take note of how the pure space influences this culture, however. If there is anything I have learned about living here, it is that the emptiness and the resiliency forced on every living thing to simply survive, permeates throughout. No career happens quickly here. There is too much fear of the scarcity of everything: water, gigs, culture. Nothing operates from a place of abundance and plenty. Instead flora and fauna alike function as if there will never be enough–and this affects everything: relationships, work, and the attitudes people take to everyday living. I have learned patience here, both from the mammoth space and emptiness and from my time in the garden trying to coax terrified plants into growing. I have learned resiliency–training myself to grow roots deep and to develop stamina for long periods without nourishment, encouragement, or help. I have learned how difficult it is to retain an attitude of abundance: a sense that there is, indeed, enough for everyone–enough work, enough friends, enough support for whatever dreams I may have. That woman in Boston didn't need these skills, plunked down in the sea of culture and abundance that drowns the East Coast. Maybe I have changed after all.
Tonight I watered my ten pots of red geraniums, repotted white petunias in the base of an ocotillo plant, hacked down the beginnings of an errant elm tree trying to devour an otherwise sweet little unidentified bush, and afterwards lingered in our bright Adirondack chairs, purple gardening gloves still in hand, musing over it all.
June 14th, 2006
After a long, tough spring, there is nothing like a two-week vacation to lift the spirits.
We had been looking forward to this trip for months. My friend, Julia, was getting married in Chicago, I was to be part of the wedding party, and we were using the occasion to squeeze a vacation out of our tired schedules. Although it always feels like a marathon to get to the actual vacation itself, this time it felt worse than ever. I was living on fumes after about six weeks with no days off and Matt was in no better shape. In the days before we left, we hosted a visiting musician who did workshops with Matt's choir and gave a concert. I played a recital and taught group lessons, cooked and cleaned house for a Saturday night dinner party, threw a breakfast for thirty piano teachers, and taught three days of lessons in two days. All this, and then we left the house at 6:00AM for the airport.
Traveling is never simple. Because I was connecting the trip to Chicago with a jaunt to St. Louis to visit my family, I was flying on Southwest standby passes. Matt and I have always had good luck with flying standby–once, we even flew standby on a direct flight from Dallas to Boston on the day before Thanksgiving. Clearly, the standby gods loved us.
Those were the days, my friend. Apparently the era of easy standby flying is a thing of the past. With airlines in crisis, no one flies empty planes anymore, and a non-revenue standby pass is an airline's last priority. We had an inkling when going to the airport that morning that my flight was dicey (Matt had a secure ticket on American Airlines, so no worries for him), but I was confident in my history as a standby passenger. However, at the ticket counter, the agent wasn't even hopefully optimistic about my chances–"The flight is full and there are ten people on the standby list ahead of you," she said. This was two hours before we were scheduled to take off. "However," she continued, "if you can get through security in the next ten minutes there is a plane leaving for Houston and from Houston you would have many more options to Chicago."
So off we ran, I barely reaching the gate before they closed the airplane doors. In spite of my hurry and the early hour, I was conscious enough to notice that this was not a direct flight to Houston, but that instead we were first headed to Dallas. "Don't worry," the kind woman at the gate assured me, "you'll get to Houston OK." She handed me a printout of my now only theoretical itinerary: Houston then Chicago (ignoring the Dallas leg entirely.) "Good luck," she said as she pushed me down the ramp.
The flight to Dallas was uneventful; I caught up on about a dozen old New Yorkers and at the airport didn't even have to leave the plane. We were late leaving Dallas, something about a problem with the air-traffic controllers (why after 9/11 do such words put the fear of God in me?), and it was sitting on the runway at Love Field that the full implications of theses various legs to Chicago hit me: there was plenty of potential to miss flights–especially as I didn't have a seat on any of them.
Landing in Houston about 30 minutes late, I hit the ground running (with all my luggage and wedding finery–I couldn't check luggage as a standby passenger, and there was no time to organize my bags with Matt back in Albuquerque.). My gate was down the farthest terminal in little Houston Hobby airport and I was out of breath when I reached the gate. However, I immediately took note of the fact that this flight was first going to St. Louis. Another leg! This couldn't be happening. The woman at the gate gave me my boarding pass and commented, "You're looking pretty good almost all the way to Chicago." The key word in that sentence was "almost".
Sure enough, in St. Louis the plane emptied except for the handful of us continuing to Chicago. The attendants took a count of the remaining passengers and I could hear them starting to mutter among themselves, "There are six. There should be only five." At this point, I headed to the bathroom, hoping to hide, but they were waiting, "Are you Amy? You have to get off the flight. It's overbooked, but we can get you on the next flight to Chicago." My little old lady seatmate was appalled at this scene. "They can't do that, can they? What did you do?"
Fortunately, I did get on the next flight to Chicago, which left an hour and half later, and I arrived in Chicago some ten hours, five airports, and four cities after leaving the house that morning. Matt had carefully given me directions about how to take the train into the city to our hotel, but by then I was too exhausted even to try. I grabbed the first cab (which ended up being a good thing as Chicago was in the middle of a rain/hail storm and Matt's plans had included a half-mile walk from the train station to the hotel.) I have never seen such a happy man as when I knocked on the door of our hotel room. "You're here." Matt said, "I was afraid I would never see you again."
Although a strange beginning to a much needed vacation, all that travel time gave me some much needed rest and downtime (albeit interspersed with mad dashes through various airports along the way). Dumping my luggage in the room, I was ready to go play and make up for the lost hours. We ducked in the nearest pharmacy to buy an umbrella, and then went walking. Our hotel was on the Gold Coast, just north of Miracle Mile (so named, I am sure, for the number of fantastic shoe-buying possibilities). We stopped at a seafood bar for drinks, oysters, and seafood chowder, and jumping over puddles made our way down Michigan Avenue. Chicago was cold, but oh! It was good to be in a city again. I missed Boston more acutely that night than I had for some time.
The next few days were filled with shopping, roaming the neighborhoods, eating well, and wedding events. The wedding was in Evanston at the chapel at Northwestern, so the next day we made our way up to Evanston with all our belongings to check into the hotel and begin the wedding festivities. Our days were chock-full: I attended the bachelorette party; Matt went to hear a lecture by John Adams on his opera "Nixon in China" (John Adams was staying in our hotel!) and then heard the Chicago Symphony and Chorus do Bach's Magnificant and Mozart's Requiem. There was a bridal luncheon, rehearsal, rehearsal dinner, and of course, the wedding itself: hours of pictures, reception, dinner and dancing. I have a theory that weddings often bring out the worst in people, but I was happily proven wrong in this case. Julia, who is a dear friend and one of the most generous and gracious people I know, had a perfect wedding: wonderful people, great food, and the grace to care about each of us more than any mundane detail of the occasion. It's a nice surprise to love someone more after her wedding than you did before.
With the wedding hoopla behind us, we were free to enjoy two more days in the city–more shopping, a couple of great meals with a friend, the Art Institute, "Nixon in China," and the comedy act "Second City." In a lifetime of many fabulous trips together, it was another one for the books.
Tuesday, Matt got on a plane back home to New Mexico and I boarded the train to St. Louis to spend the rest of the week with my momma. Dad is spending the summer in Europe–doesn't that sound glamorous? And it is really. He was the recipient of a Lilly Foundation Grant, whose stipulation for granting money simply is to find something that would make "your heart sing." Dad decided his heart would sing by traveling Europe for the summer and so there he is. (He is keeping a blog of his adventures: www.faithandempire.com) Momma will join him in London for five weeks beginning July 1, but until then, she is holding down the fort back in Missouri. It had been years since I had spent more than a day or two in St. Louis, and it was a gift to have the empty time together. Not that it stayed empty for long. I spent one overnight with my best friend, Lisa, in Columbia–and there were visits with my grandmother, a room to paint, and a Dale Chihuly glass exhibit in the botanical gardens to see to otherwise fill our hours. My return trip home to Albuquerque was uncertain–remember I had standby tickets, and as it turns out, this was Memorial Day weekend, perhaps not the easiest time to travel even under the best of circumstances. On Saturday night, Matt began checking on flights for me and calling every few minutes with the update. It wasn't good. All flights were nearly sold out for days to come. The nice computerized voice rated my chances of getting on a flight to New Mexico as "poor." I had already seen "poor": poor meant five different airports and any number of potential problems along the way. After much discussion, we decided that I would cut my trip short and try to get on the Sunday flight–feeling like the chances might be slightly better than on Monday or Tuesday.
Momma was hoping I wouldn't get on my flight; Matt, back at home in charge of the cats and the plants, was hoping against hope I'd make my flight; I was torn–sad to cut short my time with Momma, but eager, after ten days to be home. Somehow, on a sold-out flight on a holiday weekend, I wiggled my way on a non-stop flight to Albuquerque, ending any chances of more standby adventures for this trip.
It was good to be home–especially since I felt like I had stolen days ahead of me when no one expected me to be there. I don't have to return phone calls or emails until at least Tuesday I reasoned, since no one knew I was back. While it was good to be home, home was not a particular good place to be. Matt had warned me that things were in his words, "kinda dirty." Like the airline employee who said things looked good "almost" all the way to Chicago, I should have heeded that language a little more mindfully. In my absence, there had been a windstorm for the record books. We lost part of our big elm tree in the front yard, and the house was covered in a layer of dust and dirt, leaves and seeds that had blown in through our windows (which, in their charming 75-year-old state, lack screens.) To make a bad situation worse, while I was playing in St. Louis, we had a sump pump put in our basement, which required digging a four-foot hole through cement and dirt. Everything in the basement: winter clothes, pots and pans, music, laundry, and so on, was completely covered in cement dust and dirt. The cats were no longer their sweet colors, having rolled around in this mess for days. I walked in the house and swore I couldn't even inhale for the dust. "What do you want to do tonight?" Matt asked me cheerfully. Men! As if there was anything I could do besides start to frantically clean.
It took a week of scrubbing to restore the house to its former condition, but tonight, I can finally breathe again. There are some things I haven't touched yet–all the winter clothes have to be laundered, my boots cleaned for storage again, and the piles of music will have to be wiped off if I am to see the notes–but it's a livable house once more. Thursday I started what looks to be a daunting summer teaching schedule–where all these students are going to fit in the fall I have no idea–and even though when we left for Chicago I thought I could never be excited about a day of teaching again, it's amazing what two weeks off will do. The kids were excited to be back and I began lessons with a just-turned four-year old, Anna. Strange to remember that the original Yun-Sun was a four-year-old budding pianist in Boston. "Do you know which is your right hand?" I asked my newest student. "Nope," Anna replied, with the clear message that she didn't much care, either. Ah, we both have some learning to do.
Matt leaves in two weeks with 40 youth and 13 sponsors for a music and mission trip to New Orleans. Hurricane season began last week. My adventures will be close to home this summer–teaching, preparing for some recitals, gardening, writing, and catching up on piles of books I want to read. Yesterday, we were given a new couch by a wealthy adult student of mine (yes, the same one that calls me ten times a day when he wants something.). He and his wife are moving and this couch was homeless, until we took it in. I have no shame in accepting second-hand furniture, but cats were immediately onto the fact that this couch was owned by another cat! They spent the afternoon sniffing the cushions with what could only be described as snarls on their faces. Today we are doing better with the new acquisition, having spent most of the afternoon taking a nap together on the couch. Soon, I have promised the girls, it will smell only of us. Already it is hot, hot, hot, our ancient swamp cooler struggling against the heat, but the nights here remind me that I could grow to love summer in this place–cool and delightful, already we have shared many a drink and good food in our backyard with friends. A whole summer ahead and no real plans–it's good to be home.
June 14th, 2006
Ben, my eight-year old student, had been telling me for weeks that there was something wrong with my orchid. "Amy, I think you need to do something about that plant," he'd say, as he passed through my sunroom. I didn't want to hear this dire announcement. After all, I had decided that 2006 was the year I was going to grow orchids, having had several unsuccessful attempts in the past. I bought a beautiful purple orchid from our neighborhood florist who dismissed my hesitations about my orchid-growing abilities. "If you are a pianist, you can grow orchids," he told me, "you must have the right artistic temperament." Strengthened by his pronouncement, I set my new orchid high on a chest of drawers in the sunroom, far from the reach of two curious cats who might be tempted to use the flowers on their delicate stems as targets to be batted around. For two months, the orchid bloomed its heart out, and then suddenly, just as Ben said, the flowers began to wither up and die, the new buds wouldn't open, the leaves shriveled up pitifully.
Like many things in my life these last few months, it has been easy to assume that my orchid was rebelling from lack of attention and care. In every way, it's been a strange and trying semester. In addition to my piano teaching and various accompanying and performing gigs, I have been teaching a class at UNM to undergraduate music majors called "Mastering Practice and Performing Techniques". My students were a great group–hungry for new ideas, eager to explore the topic and themselves. It was a thrill to be in conversation with them all semester. But I learned the most–and not all of it was particularly welcome. This is a subject I have long been passionate about, and I have written and published articles on the topic. I have been prepared to teach this class for years. I was not prepared, however, for teaching in a territorial, suspicious, and unsupportive department. I had always thought academia was a place I would feel most at home; it has come as a surprise to discover that I am as much of a misfit in conservative-thinking academia as I have been in the "real" world. It didn't take long before I felt quite isolated and alone in my apparently na├»ve belief that artists and musicians should reach out and support one another. At some low point this spring, I realized that I couldn't do this again. While I could teach this subject every semester for the rest of my life, I couldn't survive in such a combative environment. What happens when the thing you always thought you wanted, turns out to be not the right thing after all? Even after weeks of much thinking, many long walks, and plenty of tears, the truth is, I don't know the answer.
Right now, it is more than I can handle just to put one foot in front of another. I have played multiple recitals in the last couple of weeks; hosted my own studio recital; put kids in competitions; graded final 12-page papers, notebooks, and finals; and figured semester grades for my UNM class. Last week in the midst of all this, six-year old Jeremy marched into his lesson and announced, "Amy! I didn't work on everything because I wanted to get 'Porcupine' really good." Jeremy is so short that when standing he barely reaches the piano keyboard. Make no mistake about it; I am not in charge in his lessons. He is one of those students where I am merely along for the ride. "Can we record 'Porcupine?'" He then asked, "I want to make a CD."
Ben was my next student that day. He was getting ready for a competition and in preparation we were doing a mock contest. He did something squirrelly, and impatiently I told him, "Ben, the judge will not like it if you do that." Earnestly he looked at me, "Will I lose votes?" Potential six-year old recording artists and playing the piano for votes. God bless what "American Idol" has done to the art of teaching piano lessons.
Meanwhile, my 60 year-old real-estate-millionaire student has called at least ten times today. He wants me to help him buy yet another Steinway. He gets frustrated by what he calls "my phone service"–in other words, my lack of answering the telephone. In his world of being connected every minute, calling back within 24 hours is not good enough. He doesn't understand that in my world of practicing, teaching, writing, and rehearsing, answering every telephone call is an interruption I can't afford. "What if someone needs you?" He repeatedly asks me, "I can't ever get a hold of you."
It is weeks like this that drive me to distraction and if anything, drive me further into my hole of a home. I find myself ever more determined that if I can't find the supportive, artistic environment I seek elsewhere, I will have to build it here. And in spite of everything, there have been glimpses of what could be. Several times this spring, we have had dinner parties with friends and fellow musicians that after much food and wine have led to spontaneous music-making around our piano. All year I have hosted a book discussion group with other piano teachers that has nurtured some surprise friendships and wonderful discussions about what it means to be an artist and teacher. After playing one too many juries, I find myself in the awkward place of wanting a graceful way out of such tough work. Maybe I am not a good enough musician to make my livelihood playing with students, but I am tired of spending so much energy trying to just stay alive on stage with a mediocre music student. I leave those gigs feeling inadequate and insecure of myself as a musician. UNM can be damned, there are other ways besides academia to find stimulation and inspiration and to build an artistic community in this world.
Maybe, just maybe, all of these glimpses of grace are signs: signs of what not only I need, but what the world needs–a safe place to foster our creativity and nurture our artistic selves. A place where creative and artistic pursuits are welcomed and encouraged, not stifled or committee-ed to death. A place where musicians are safe to make music, and where there is always enough food and wine for one more starving soul.
Last night, Matt was in bed with the laptop when I crawled in. We chatted briefly about our days, our tomorrows, finishing the business of co-existing for one more day. "Hey, what's this 'Porcupine?'" Matt asked me. "Oh, that's Jeremy," I answered. "He insisted that we record his music." "Well, let's hear it," Matt said. Jeremy and his "Porcupine" began. "That's pretty good, don't you think?" Matt commented. "Isn't he like six or something?"
It was pretty good. And although it is not quite what I dreamed of for myself, I would take "Porcupine" and precocious kindergarteners over the prickles of academia any day. Last Saturday Ben not only didn't lose votes, but walked away with a 1+, and thanks to our favorite florist, I have a new orchid blooming on the mantle. None of this is exactly what I planned, but as spring edges towards summer, I find myself catching my breath for the next step.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com