Friday, December 31, 2010

"Lucky we know the Forest so well, or we might get lost"

The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (Pooh Original Edition)I sometimes wish there were no movies based on great children’s literature. The movies in and of themselves may be fine, but I hate when the movies become substitutes for the books. So much good material is lost when that happens.

Take Winnie-the-Pooh. My four year-old announced last week that she doesn’t like Rabbit because he doesn’t believe in celebrating Easter. Me saying, “Honey, that’s not in the book,” is no argument at all, because she saw it in a movie. But our current read-aloud is The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, and I’m hoping she will absorb enough of it to know there’s way more to Rabbit than the DVD reveals. Actually, I’m hoping we can just erase most of the detritus the DVD left behind.

Last night we read the chapter titled, “In Which Pooh is Unbounced.” It begins with Rabbit’s absolutely horrible plan to take Tigger to the top of the Forest and lose him there, leave him overnight, and then rescue him, in hopes of unbouncing him. Because he’s gotten entirely too Bouncy, you see. As Rabbit says, “Because he’ll be a Humble Tigger. Because he’ll be a Sad Tigger, a Melancholy Tigger, a Small and Sorry Tigger, and Oh-Rabbit-I-am-glad-to-see-you Tigger. That’s why.”

Should I stop here to tell you how amazing A. A. Milne is? Do I need to tell you how good he is at seeing and illustrating human nature? How Rabbit is a character who can exhibit downright despicable behavior and yet somehow at the end of the story you are still able to love him? No, I probably shouldn’t do that and interrupt the story, because that would be bad writing. Much too didactic. How about if I tell you that if you haven’t read this book, whether you have children or not, (or if you have children, whether they are too old or too young for it,) please read this book! Watching Disney versions of it is not a fair substitute! Too preachy, huh? Back to the story, then.

They manage to lose Tigger, or at least leave him alone, and he promptly goes home to play with Roo. Rabbit, on the other hand, has a little more trouble.

“’Lucky we know the Forest so well, or we might get lost,’ said Rabbit half an hour later, and he gave the careless laugh which you give when you know the Forest so well you can’t get lost.”
I read sentences like that to my kids and things start bubbling under the surface of my soul. I think of pride and arrogance, and the all-too-familiar human tendency to want to squash what is different from oneself. While I continue reading the story out loud, there is this rich under-tapestry of thoughts, images, impressions, insights being woven in my heart, and the whole time I’m thinking, “Are my children hearing this? Oh, I hope they aren’t missing this!” Have you had this experience? We talk about things we read, and I ask questions and try to point a few things out, but having that feeling inside, experiencing that under-story, gaining understanding—those things happen because of the literature. I figure the more I expose my kids, and the more experience they get, the more that will happen for them, too.

It's my understanding that A. A. Milne was frustrated by how his books for children overshadowed all his other writing. I’ve only read his four children’s books. But I consider it literature for myself, too, as much as anything I’ve read that was written for adults. 

Maybe some great classic children's literature has been saved from obscurity by movie-adaptations.  Maybe it is a necessary part of culture to respond to great works and retell the stories in new ways.  I can't argue with those goals.  But at the same time, I fear that something can be lost in the process.  So, okay, you've seen the movie.  But will you read the book?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Taking a Break

I'm taking a break for a little while to celebrate Christmas with my family and get a little rest.  Hope you and yours are having a truly blessed season!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Amahl and the Night Visitors

Gian-Carlo Menotti's AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS Narrative Adaptation by Frances Frost, illustrated by Roger Duvoisin (1952 Hardcover 89 pages with illustrations throughout This narriative adaptation by Frances Frost preserves the exact dialogue of the opera.)A big thank-you to my friend, Joanna, for reminding me about this opera! Amahl and the Night Visitors is a one-act opera written by Gian Carlo Menotti. It was the first opera written for television, and premiered on Christmas Eve, 1951, on NBC.

This is both the Christmas story told from a distance and the story of a poor, disabled shepherd boy and his widowed mother. The pair are at the end of their resources and on the verge of resorting to begging so they will not starve to death. Amahl is a dreamer, and often gets in trouble for telling tales, so when he sees a new star in the sky one night, his mother does not believe him. Besides, she is more concerned with the fact that she cannot feed her son.

Later that night they are visited by three kings who are following the star, bearing rich gifts for the Christ Child. They ask to stay for the night, and while Amahl goes to get the neighbors the kings tell his mother about the Child they are seeking. Amahl’s mother cannot help but think of the child closest to her heart, to whom nobody will bring gifts.

After food and entertainment provided by neighboring shepherds, everybody turns in for the night. Amahl’s mother, however, is unable to sleep, haunted by the wealth surrounding her in her poverty. She tries to steal some of the kings’ gold, but is caught by their page, who awakens everybody. Amahl tries to defend her and collapses in her arms. The kings tell her she may keep the gold, that the Child they seek doesn’t need it, and they go on to describe the kind of king he will be. When the mother hears their description she breaks down, saying that she’s waited for a king like that all her life, and she wants to send Him a gift of her own. Amahl agrees, and offers the thing most precious to him—the crutch that helps him walk. He holds it out to the kings, and finds that he has miraculously taken a step without it. He has been healed. After much dancing and celebrating, he and his mother agree that he should offer his thanks to the Christ Child in person, and he joins their caravan as they leave to follow the star.

I’ve enjoyed a variety of TV Christmas specials in my life, but this one is entirely in a league of its own. You can watch it on DVD if you aren’t lucky enough to have a live production in your area, and maybe your local library has this book—adapted by Frances Frost and illustrated by Roger Duvoisin, containing all the dialogue of the opera in story form—tucked away somewhere.

Menotti - Amahl and the Night Visitors

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I once took a child to a library story time where in the course of 30 minutes the librarian read only two picture books. The rest of the time was spent singing songs about reading and doing activities that promoted reading. I, who was used to sitting cross-legged on the floor in rapt attention for book after book (yes—as an adult, too) was frustrated. After a while, this little girl wandered away from the group that was singing “I Love to Read,” picked up a book, and started looking at it on her own. She’d come to read, after all.

I get really uncomfortable with the thought that reading needs an ad campaign. My favorite approach to promoting reading is one that assumes reading is fun. It suggests, but maybe never says out loud, that reading is as elemental as breathing. It is based on relationship, and a genuine love of books. And good books. With this approach you spend very little time talking about how wonderful reading is. Instead, you share books with children—as many as you can get away with, as often as possible— because you love the books, but even more because you love the children. In other words, you don’t serve broccoli with a wrinkled-up nose, saying, “Really, it’s good for you! You’ll love it! Really!” You serve broccoli because it’s delicious and wonderful and you want to share this good thing with your children. (And if they don’t like it yet, they’re missing out, poor things!) I have been part of many library, school, and family story times where the person reading was as captivated by the books as the children were, where amid the squirms and whispers and runny noses there was an atmosphere of love and respect for both children and books.  The only interruptions were when one book was set down and another picked up.  The books spoke for themselves; it was obvious that reading was a special thing.

In her essay, “Stories,” in The Spying Heart: More Thoughts on Reading and Writing Books for Children, Katherine Paterson writes,

A teacher in Texas explained to me what she thought her task as a teacher of reading should be. For a long time, she said, we have been trying to train stoplight readers. We ask the children to read a bit of a story, stop, and talk about it. But what we should be working for is flashlight readers—readers who take a book under the blanket with a flashlight, because they cannot bear to stop reading what may very well be the best book they have ever read. If you want illumination, friends, a flashlight will beat a stoplight every time.
Is there really any more to say than that?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Swimming Lessons

Have you seen my comfort zone anywhere? Because I’ve been looking for it for quite some time. I vividly remember the last time I was there: I was pretty sure I had this mothering thing down, I felt confident I knew what I was all about as a person, my husband had a good job, everything looked set. I was sure I knew where we were going and what it would look like. I was even happy with my weight. Ahhh, 2003.

As it turns out, our little family was dangling above deep waters and we just didn’t know it yet. My kids weren’t old enough to show me that I knew nothing about mothering and was in fact a selfish, immature, bungling mess. The career change that I thought would turn us into normal (!) people actually only proved that the only molds my husband I were going to fit into were the ones in which we were made. And I won’t go into all the details, but it wasn’t long before we found ourselves in the deep end of the pool.

At times it was exhilarating. For a while I was convinced that Great Things were just ahead. That’s how it goes in stories, right? You struggle through deep water and come out, shining and glorious and strong, on the other side.

I learned that when you’re in deep water you tend to start swimming. Shallow water allows you to stand still. You might make a few feeble attempts at swimming, but as long as the ground is right there under your feet there’s always the option of standing up. It’s hard to learn what swimming is like if you stand up every time you want to take a breath. So I learned about treading water, and floating on my back, and not hyperventilating while I learned the front crawl.

I kept thinking that once I learned how to swim I would get back to the shallow end of the pool. My work would be done. Sort of like in college when I would go into a violin lesson after a week of good, hard practicing, expecting some sort of celebration because I had mastered something. My teacher always acknowledged the work, but the party never happened. I had only done what I was supposed to do. He and I were both glad about it, but there was always more ahead. Mastery meant new expectations and new work, not to mention a new definition of mastery. Not an easy lesson—in violin, or in life.

So I’m swimming. Some days I love the rhythm of it, and the buoyancy of my body in the water. Some days I am so tired and discouraged I don’t think I can bring my head up out of the water one more time. Some days I spend all my energy trying to touch the bottom, other days I cling to the edge of the pool. Overall, I’m a pretty slow swimmer. I have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again, and I still tend to hyperventilate when I think about how deep the water is. But I am swimming.

2003 is easy to romanticize. The truth is that the year was shot through with the rumblings of future changes and challenges. That might sound ominous, but I don’t mean it to. I’m glad I am where I am, and I’m thankful for the changes our family has been through in the past seven years. All of them.

I fully expect that one of these days the swimming instructor is going to say, “Okay, kiddo, you’ve learned a lot. But this was just training. One of these days we’re going to take you out of the pool and you can have a go at the English Channel. But before that, well there’s no delicate way to put this…I think you should consider learning to swim without the arm-floaties.” Has anybody seen my goggles?

Monday, December 6, 2010

10 Bits of (Sparkly-Shiny) Magic

(Sometimes it’s not the thing itself that catches my breath, but the way it reflects light. I don’t know about you, but I love the way light plays, bends, bounces, reflects. How it changes what it touches.)

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. Christmas tree lights
2. Sugar
3. Dimples
4. Tinsel
5. Candle flames
6. Cobalt blue glass
7. Frost
8. Laughing eyes
9. Streetlights
10. Late-afternoon sunlight in the winter

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Firebird

I love The Nutcracker, but there are many other works out there that also bring together literature, art, music, and dance. If you want to broaden your children’s experience with ballet, try looking into the Firebird.

The Firebird is a character from Russian folklore—a mysterious, magical bird with fiery glowing feathers, often the object of a quest, that can bring both blessings and curses to those who find it. These sumptuously-illustrated books tell some of those traditional stories:
The Tale of The Firebird

Firebird Firebird

In 1910, Sergei Diaghilev commissioned Igor Stravinsky to write a ballet score for a new version of the tale, one that combined elements of the Firebird with an unrelated character, a sorcerer named Katschei. This was the first collaboration between the two men, and an important work from the influential Ballets Russes

Rachel Isadora and Jane Yolen have both written picture books that tell the story of the ballet, with illustrations that weave together the dance and fairy tale elements. In the ballet version of the story, Prince Ivan tries to capture the Firebird, but then releases her. Out of gratitude she gives him a feather from her tail, telling him to use it to call on her in time of trouble. She later returns to help him rescue ten princesses who are held captive by the evil magician, Katschei.

Of course, the music is an integral part of the work, so try listening to the Suite (a concert-version that is shorter than the full ballet) or even the entire ballet (about 40 minutes long, I believe.)

Stravinsky: Firebird Suite/Pulcinella SuiteThe Firebird Suite conducted by Pierre Boulez

Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird (Complete Ballet, 1910) / Alexander Scriabin: Prometheus - The Poem of Fire - Valery Gergiev / Kirov Orchestra, St. Petersburg / Alexander Toradze
A recording of the complete ballet, conducted by Valery Gergiev

Or, if you can find a DVD performance, even better--there are several out there:

Return of the Firebird: Petrushka/Firebird/Scheherazade

A DVD containing a performance of the complete ballet, along with Petrushka and Scheherezade, Bolshoi Ballet, 2002

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Backstageby Robert Maiorano and Rachel Isadora, illustrations by Rachel Isadora, Greenwillow Books, 1978

One of the things I love about playing operas and ballets is the atmosphere backstage. There’s so much magic—not just in the performance itself but in all the inner workings, in everything that goes into a performance. My parents often brought my sister and I along with them to performances when we were kids. We went through the stage door with them, followed them as they unpacked their cases, and accompanied them into the orchestra pit. From there somebody would push a chair up to the edge of the pit and help us climb up and out to find our seats. I loved it. The whole backstage experience was as much a part of the show for me as the performance itself.

This little gem of a book is out of print, but it captures so much I just had to share. The writing is spare; the illustrations do most of the telling as a little girl named Olivia goes to pick up her mother at a rehearsal of the “The Nutcracker.” She goes all over the theater, providing readers with detailed glimpses of what things look like behind the scenes (much more than I saw as a child, in fact.) The black-and-white illustrations are bursting with detail that I’m guessing most ballet-goers never get to see. If you can get hold of this book, it is a real treat.

For more Nutcracker goodness from last year, check here and here.

Friday, November 26, 2010


“Thanksgiving goes probably far deeper than you folks suppose. I am not sure but it is the source of the highest poetry.”
Walt Whitman

I woke up yesterday morning at five a.m. to a precious sound—my husband coming in the front door after a thirteen hour-drive. I spent the day at home with my family and enjoyed dinner with my husband, children, parents, and in-laws. We shed tears over the people we love who are no longer with us. Our four year-old learned that Thanksgiving is not exactly about getting presents but she had a great day anyway. Our eight year-old bloomed with generous acts. Our ten year-old looked at me with glowing eyes and told me he’d never been to a real feast before. I am thankful and want to hold on to that state of mind. I want to walk around in a cloud of gratitude.

To my mind, there is something jarring about going from a day devoted to giving thanks to a day devoted to getting more. It’s too easy for me to forget that one of the synonyms for “thankful” is “content.” Then there’s “beholden,” another synonym, and one which I don’t think I’ve ever used in a sentence before today. But why should “bound in gratitude” be an old-fashioned idea? I am blessed beyond belief. This is a truth I want to carry with me at all times. Maybe even be bound to it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Take That, Mr. Shaw

Funny thing, about life. The class/workshop I attended in Minneapolis was fantastic and inspiring. I think I will be processing it for a long time—a good thing, but also something that tends to exaggerate my introverted nature. My head is full of thoughts, but I have trouble knowing what to say. Add to that the fact that the morning after I got home, my husband left to attend the funeral of an important person in his life, and the fact that—wait, is Thanksgiving tomorrow? At my house? I’m not panicking. Really, I’m not. It’s just that I feel like I have both everything and nothing to say right now, and not much time to say it in. Then again, if I had more “time,” I’d probably have a lot less to say.

Back to the class. The teacher was Alison McGhee, lovely person and lovely writer for both children and adults, who just happens to have been my Chinese teacher for two years in high school. I knew the class would be good, and it was. Two things stood out, especially:

1) Nobody told me I was in over my head and should just go home (a silly thing to worry about, I suppose, but—hooray—nobody said it!)

2) There’s a lot that goes into being a good teacher, and this is what I really want to get at today. I learned a ton about writing picture books, but I also got some great insights into teaching. Alison’s generosity with the class really stood out. Whenever somebody shared an idea, she could see the magic in it. She didn’t just understand and nod and say “good job,” she could see the potential within and help everybody else see it.

Do you know that old saying, “Those who can’t, teach”? From what I can tell, it comes from George Bernard Shaw (“Man and Superman”: Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion), although the exact quote is, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” Way too cynical for my taste. Of course there are bad teachers out there. Anything good you can think of, there are examples of it being twisted into something so bad it shakes your faith in the thing itself. But I’ve seen good teachers in action, and been blessed to learn from a number of them, and I truly feel sorry for people who believe as Shaw does. There are teachers out there who can, and do—who know their craft inside and out, and on top of that have the ability to translate what they know into something they can share. Not only that, but they have the ability to see where to work and guide; they know how to judge what is most useful to do and when it is most useful to do it. Beyond that, they work with a generosity and humility that is guided by a deep love and respect for the student. They prove that teaching is an art, in and of itself. Believe me, those people exist. Seek them out.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Weekend Ahead

I’ve been sitting here at the computer for a while, now, trying to figure out how to sum up what I want to say about the weekend ahead of me. The sunrise is in full bloom, and soon I will need to shower and finish packing, and take care of all the loose ends I wanted to take care of that I always think will take no time at all but in reality end up absorbing at least an hour or two.

I’m going off for a weekend to take a writing class. There—I said it. I have no idea what to expect, and the thought of doing it is slightly terrifying, but I can’t wait. I know by now that stepping out into something new is almost always harder and more complex than I had imagined, but often it is more beautiful in the long run, too. I can’t tell you how impatient I feel to learn more, but along with that I feel tired and slightly distracted and rather unfit to take even a four-hour class. So we’ll see how it goes. I’ve got a fantastic husband who is willing to send me off for a few days, and children who think that the idea of Mommy taking a class is pretty cool. I have a full day of driving ahead of me, and lots of coffee to drink, and lots of time to think uninterrupted. I can feel my energy level rising already.

Monday, November 15, 2010


The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (Pooh Original Edition)

       Christopher Robin nodded.
       “Then there’s only one thing to be done,” he said. “We shall have to wait for you to get thin again.”
       “How long does getting thin take?” asked Pooh anxiously.
       “About a week, I should think.”
       “But I can’t stay here for a week!”
       “You can stay here all right, silly old Bear. It’s getting you out which is so difficult.”
       “We’ll read to you,” said Rabbit cheerfully. “And I hope it won’t snow,” he added. “And I say, old fellow, you’re taking up a good deal of room in my house—do you mind if I use your back legs as a towel-horse? Because, I mean, there they are—doing nothing—and it would be very convenient just to hang the towels on them.”
       “A week!” said Pooh gloomily. “What about meals?”
       “I’m afraid no meals,” said Christopher Robin, “because of getting thin quicker. But we will read to you.”
       Bear began to sigh, and then found he couldn’t because he was so tightly stuck; and a tear rolled down his eye, as he said;
       “Then would you read a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?”
From Winnie-the-Pooh, by A. A. Milne

On Friday night I had the opportunity to sit down over tea and sandwiches with a small group of women for the express purpose of sharing our life stories with one another. I came away feeling incredibly blessed. I love hearing people’s stories, both because it helps me understand them better and because it helps me understand life better. I have many times felt like a Wedged Woman in Great Tightness. It is hard to understand your own story, sometimes, when you are right in the middle of it. But following the arc of someone else’s story—that offers insight from a more comfortable perspective, and sometimes insight into one thing leads to insight into another. Sort of like when you’re working on a puzzle and getting one piece into the right place makes your whole perspective shift. Suddenly you know where a whole handful of pieces fit.

If you love me, tell me a story.

Friday, November 12, 2010

In Which I Share an Article for Completely Self-Serving Reasons

I admit it. I googled “clutter and creativity” and bypassed all the (many) search results that talk about how clutter inhibits creativity, picking instead this New York Times article that claims clutter might be good. I had heard rumors to this effect, and actively sought out support for them. If you are a neat, organized person, God bless you and please do not be offended. I admire you greatly, and this article probably has nothing to offer you. If, like me, your lack of organization is just one more source of guilt, shame, and frustration, maybe there’s some wisdom (and moral support) to be found here. At the very least, it makes me think I need to tweak my response to my children’s mess (yes, they need to learn how to clean up, but are the ransacked school room and bedrooms a travesty, or a sign of wonderful things going on?)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The "Third" Piece of the Triangle

The Suzuki Triangle consists of three important parts: the student, the parent, and the teacher. All three have distinct roles to play, and are integral to a child learning to play.

I grew up as a Suzuki student. My parents, both professional musicians and teachers—violin and bass—started me on violin when I was 2 ½. The story is that they pretty much had to give me my own violin so I would leave their instruments alone. I started teaching in 1996, and a year and a half ago I started my older daughter, beginning my tenure as a Suzuki parent. Now my younger daughter is also learning to play, because the only way I could work uninterrupted with her sister was to give her a lesson first. And the cycle continues…

Our triangle looks a little funny, since I am both teacher and parent. But seeing things from this side has been amazing. I get a whole new perspective as the person responsible for daily listening, practice, and overall development. The parent’s role is huge. This is the person who does the work on the ground, finding a way to make violin a part of daily life, fulfilling the role of teacher at home. This is not a drop-your-kid-off-and-have some-free-time-after-school activity by any stretch of the imagination. I knew it would be a challenge. I knew it would be a commitment. I also knew I would get a lot of insight into the whole process of learning violin. But at the same time, I had no idea. I am learning so much.

You know what, though? It is such a beautiful thing to be part of.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My Nightstand

If you’re ever over at our house, you may notice that we keep our bedroom door shut. I love the room and the things in it, but it also tends to be Laundry Central, and that’s sort of embarrassing. A book I read during my first year of marriage said our bedroom should be the most beautiful place in our home—a sanctuary and symbol of our marriage and thus the place that gets the most loving care. Well, I’ve failed at that. It’s a great idea, but—well, this post isn’t about housekeeping.

If the door is ever open, it’s possible I’ve managed to tame the mess on my dresser and deal with the laundry (or hide it in the closet.) But I probably haven’t even noticed my nightstand. It rarely crosses my mind that it should look any different than it does. Come to think of it, that may explain why the area around each child’s bed looks the way it does. Because my nightstand holds most of the books I am currently reading, as well as a hefty line-up of the things I want to read. It contains many of my hopes and dreams as a reader and as a person, it reveals some of what I love, what I want to learn, what I want to emulate, what I want to absorb.

So here’s what is in that pile:

Four issues of Poets & Writers
A Bible
Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach
A Fine White Dust, Cynthia Rylant
Rules for the Dance, Mary Oliver
Teacher Man, Frank McCourt (actually finished this, but never re-shelved it)
Three issues of Books & Culture
Summer issue of The Classical Teacher, Memoria Press
A stack of letters and copies of my grandma’s sketches that I brought home from Lincoln last spring and don’t want to lose
The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck
Shadow Baby, Alison McGhee
Into Thin Air, John Krakauer
Nathan Coulter, Wendell Berry
The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor
Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography, ed. William Zinsser

Then there’s what used to be on the floor under the nightstand, but has been moved by my ever-patient husband to the top of a CD tower in the hallway:

The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Paul Elie
Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
The Mabinogion, trans. Charlotte Guest

Finally, we mustn’t forget the headboard (it’s flat and makes a lovely shelf):

Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton
Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America, ed. Jane Kurtz
The Burning of Los Angeles: Poems, Samuel Maio

Remember, this post is not about housekeeping!

Thursday, November 4, 2010


It’s turning out to be one of those weeks. One of those “Would-you-please-let-me-off-the-rollercoaster-and-let-me-walk-for-a-while” weeks. We started the week with illness—both my husband and I were barely functional. And when I get sick I tend to also get discouraged. Little things, like when your eight year-old gets excited about seeing a picture of Bach on the wall in a movie (“You know, the guy on the one dollar bill!”) are devastating, because you don’t know if you should be excited that she esteems Bach so highly or concerned about the holes in her knowledge of American history. Or both. (Now that I’m feeling better I’ve decided to be glad of the connections she made—she recognized the picture on the wall as the same picture on a $1 bill and figured it was the man in a white wig with whom she is most familiar. Not bad for barely eight years old. She has plenty of time left in her education to iron these things out.)

There have been glimpses of grace along the way this week, too, like the snowflake mobile the kids made out of the ceiling fan, and hugs from my ten year-old son, and the offers from all three children to take over meal preparations. There have been articles like author Alison McGhee’s on why she writes for children and Jessica Griffith’s on parenting, being different, and artistic vision.

I remember what a revelation it was when teachers pointed out to me that the music of Bach and Mozart was full of dissonances. For a long time, I had thought of Mozart, especially, as a composer who wrote perfectly logical music—what came next always made sense to me. In fact, though, part of his brilliance was how he played with his listeners’ expectations, how his music was peppered with sharps and flats that weren’t part of the key he was writing in, how melody and form took unexpected turns in his compositions. Bach, too, held notes together that clashed, moving through dissonances I never thought I expected in his music, but that in reality make his music fresh and rich and relevant.

It turns out that much of what I respond to in art has to do with tension and release, light and dark, devastation and redemption. And yet I keep thinking that I don’t want those things in my life. That I want some sort of easy straight line to live. And yet the light that you get when you are in the dark is so very lovely.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Philosopher and the Poet

I remember a heated discussion with a couple of friends in college who became convinced that philosophy was the highest, purest form of art there could be. I think their argument was that it dealt with the highest things, unencumbered by anything like a storyline, or a canvas, or a musical score. (It’s been quite a while--I could be completely wrong, but that’s how I remember it.) I had just finished a semester in a philosophy class, and I was a music student, besides, so there was no way I could agree. My argument was that a poet (or artist, or composer, for that matter) could take that pure philosophy and capture its essence in just a few lines, delivering the same message in a beautiful form that could be understood almost instinctually. I still stand by that thought: poet/artist/musician as messenger, translator, light-shedder.

But here is a slightly different take on poetry and reason, from the chapter titled “The Maniac,” in G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
Does that make anybody else want to shout, “Yes, yes, yes!” and plaster that on their forehead?

Friday, October 29, 2010

10 Bits of Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. Seeing practice pay off
2. Fresh apple cider
3. A hayride under a starry sky
4. Seeing your children be spontaneously generous with one another
5. Colors. Everywhere. Completely extravagant.
6. A child’s excitement before a birthday party
7. Witnessing a friend’s miracle
8. Sharing a choice passage from a book with someone else
9. A warm bed on a cold morning
10. Kid logic

What bits of magic have you experienced recently?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Online Resources for Kids

My kids love their computer time. I keep it limited, but their excitement to explore, when matched with a good educational website, provides some valuable opportunities for supplemental learning. Here are three wonderful symphony orchestra websites that have a lot to offer:

The New York Philharmonic Kid Zone
There’s lots of exploring to do here: learn about the instruments, tour the dressing rooms to meet conductors and soloists, get an introduction to different musical eras, make your own instrument, compose your own piece, experiment with orchestration, visit the musician’s lounge, and more.

The San Francisco Symphony Kids’ Site
The Music Lab is especially interesting. Get a rundown on the basics of musical notation, then learn about (and play with) tempo, pitch, rhythm, harmony, dynamics, and instrumentation. The Radio feature provides wonderful musical excerpts with accompanying descriptions. The six different “channels” include things like families of instruments, “Big Moments” in music, and storytelling in music.

Dallas Symphony Orchestra Kids
Read composer bios while listening to excerpts of their works, explore basic concepts in music theory, print out staff paper for writing your own compositions, get practice tips, and play games.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Young Hans Christian Andersen

The Young Hans Christian Andersen
Whoo-hoo!  I made it to my 100th post!  Celebrate with me—ignore your housework for a while, pour yourself another cup of coffee, and find something beautiful to read, listen to, look at, or make today. 

For my part, I think it’s the perfect moment to share this magical little biography:  The Young Hans Christian Andersen, by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Erik Blegvad, Scholastic Press, 2005.  I saw it at our local library during one of my got-here-10-minutes-before-closing book grabs and thought, “Cool—biography of a dreamer.  Nice cover,” and stuffed it in my back-breaking tote bag.  Then I forgot about it for a week.  But oh, it’s such a beautiful book, and I’m so glad I sat down to read it.

For lack of a better word, I would call this a chapter book, but pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations grace every page and the chapters are brief—sometimes only a paragraph long.  The book itself is brief; the afterword and bibliography stretch it to 47 pages. 

Each vignette from Andersen’s life carries the title of one of his fairy tales, and the effect is rich and moving.  In “The Ugly Ducking” the author describes his physical features and his awkwardness, then continues, “He carried his genius like a slender bottle of champagne, its silent fizz stopped up, but determined.  And when he met with kindness, he became beautiful.”  “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” tells about his father’s return from serving in Napoleon’s army.  “The Ice Maiden” captures a young Hans Christian melting the frost on a window with a coin he heated on the stove in order to look past the disturbing image his father saw in the frost.

I recommend this book highly.  Karen Hesse captures so much with so few words—this biography reads almost like a fairy tale itself.  And it made me pull out our copy of Andersen’s complete fairy tales.  They are strange, sorrowful, magical stories, probably more for older children and parents than anybody else, stories that are hard to forget (were you haunted by “The Little Match Girl” or the not-Disney version of “The Little Mermaid” as I was?)  But that’s what can be so wonderful about this kind of literature, both Hesse’s biography and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales:  there is richness there for adult and child, alike. 

Read-aloud, anyone?
The Complete Illustrated Stories of Hans Christian Anderson

Friday, October 22, 2010

Continuing on my Communication Theme...

Nurtured By Love: the Life and Work of Shinichi Suzuki (VHS Video)I’ve watched the DVD “Nurtured by Love: The Life and Work of Shinichi Suzuki” several times recently, and there’s this fantastic spot where David Cerone talks about music instruction. He begins, “We mustn’t forget one fundamental concept here, and that is: we are in the communication business, first and foremost.” He then goes on to say that the study of music is the study of translation—basically, we must learn how to understand what is written by the composer, take it into ourselves, and then communicate it with others in a way that they understand the same thing. He points out that it’s a sophisticated learning process, and that the “giants” of teaching are able to help students through it at a spiritual level.

I think this is a profound thought. All the mechanics of learning an instrument—all the focus on posture, technique, intonation, articulation, tempo, dynamics, you name it—it all serves a higher purpose. Learning a skill is a fantastic thing. Boosting test scores is nice. Learning how to hear, translate, and communicate in a second language is another thing entirely.