Thursday, September 27, 2012



A slow brilliant sunset, with time to watch it.

A towering Duplo Lego structure, left by children waiting for lessons.

A piece of notebook paper titled, “Hoverplate plans,” complete with drawings, labels and purple ink stains.

A deer, trailing me on an early-morning run.

A note on a tiny scrap of paper: Will you go out with me? Yes or no. PS—Hi!

A child too busy naming a future pet mouse to fall sleep.

A note from a student: I love you.

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Monday, September 24, 2012


I was working on September Birthday Cake No. 4 yesterday (Middle’s, chocolate with cream cheese frosting, decorated with strawberries and hearts) and pondering musical memories when I opened the cupboard over my stove and got showered with pearly cake decorations. Now, I have a habit of thinking that if I can get a door or lid or suitcase closed it means that whatever’s inside fits. I am sometimes wrong. At least this time when something came flying out at me I didn’t have to get stitches. (I also have a habit of using my stovetop as extra counterspace, and then not paying close-enough attention to which burner I turn on. It hasn’t happened for a while, but can you see the partially-melted handle on the scissors in the background? Yeah.)

So I looked at my mess, the pearly cake decorations and scissors with the partially-melted handle, and had a dark moment in which I decided I was looking at clear evidence of what a mess I was in general.

And then I looked at my mess and thought, “Those pearly cake decorations look very pretty spilled all over the black stovetop.”

*       *       *

Before my little mess I had been thinking about how pieces of things lodge themselves in your soul and become part of you, maybe in ways you don’t even realize. How it seems, sometimes, that we are completely made up of fragments.

*       *       *

Take the Mozart Violin Concerto in A Major. Learning it in college was like learning no other piece, ever. I felt like I already knew it, like I was re-learning it. I have felt that way before, especially as a child, with pieces I’d heard older kids play so often that I knew the notes inside-out before I started “working” on them. But this concerto was a much more extreme case. I’ve never learned anything so effortlessly. I actually called my dad, to ask if I’d somehow worked on it before and simply forgotten.

It turns out that when I was an infant my parents played an Oistrakh recording of this concerto for me every day. For months and months. Once, when I was 3 or 4 months old, my mom left the house to run a short errand while I was taking a nap. My dad was practicing Bartok, getting ready for a performance. And I woke up almost immediately, and cried and cried. Hoping to not lose rare practice time, my dad switched to "my" Mozart concerto, and I calmed down and smiled. So he switched back to Bartok. And I started crying. And we went back and forth for quite a while, between Bartok and Mozart, crying and smiling. To this day my dad is certain I knew the difference.

Somehow this piece is part of me—it is my piece—more than any other.

*       *       *

There is other music like this, too, though—fragments that have taken hold.

The Dream Pantomime from “Hänsel and Gretel,” by Engelbert Humperdinck, for example. I’m not sure how many Decembers I accompanied my parents to their performances of this with the Minnesota Opera, but in my head the music melds with Christmastime, and slushy parking lots, and the sound of my boots clunking through backstage hallways, and entering the theater by climbing out of the orchestra pit, and sitting next to my sister trying to figure out which angel surrounding Hänsel and Gretel was the one we knew, the son of one of the horn players in the pit with my parents. By 1:24 in the Pantomime I am ten years old again and there in the darkness with those lost children; danger and hurt and hope are rising up together around them, and around me and my sister, as well. When I finally played this opera as an adult, I suddenly understood where so much of my taste in music comes from.

There is, also, the memory of my grandparents’ house one summer, not being able to sleep because I could not breathe, and how it felt—sitting with my grandma on her porch on a vinyl-cushioned glider, eating butter brickle ice cream and looking at distant city lights while Pachelbel's Canon in D played in the background, still not getting quite enough air but feeling calmer, and safe.

There are symphonies—Dvorak 9 and Tchaikovsky 5 and Bruckner 7—music that when I played it for the first time I thought: “I knew this existed! I’ve always known and now I have proof!”

*       *      *

Sometimes the pieces that make up a life are bits picked up along the way, treasures gleaned and held safe. Sometimes the pieces are really just pieces, what’s left of something shattered—jagged shards—but still they work their way in. Somehow the treasured bits and jagged shards intermingle. At a certain point, who is to say which is which? Maybe you get to step back from them to see better, maybe you don’t. But together they form something new.

Something whole.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

To Share:

Sarah M. shared a link to a lovely animated movie called “The Danish Poet”* in the comments of my last post. I enjoyed it and thought you all might, too, so I'm passing it along. Sometimes a good story is just the thing, don't you think? (Thank you, Sarah!)

*My computer was having some trouble with the origianl link, so this is a different one.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012


Oldest found this little guy at an art fair yesterday. I was barely paying attention when he asked if he could see how much it cost—we had been walking around long enough that Middle, whose Tylenol was wearing off, was starting to feel sick again, and Youngest was beginning to crumble under the realization that the world was even more full of things-she-couldn’t-have than she’d realized. So when he came back and told me it was $2, I was simply glad he could afford it.

The lady who sold it to him, though, left her booth to tell me about the transaction. “I can tell you’re busy,” (I think Middle was by this time sitting in the street, and Youngest was climbing me like a tree) “but I want you to know about the deal your son made. These whistles are $15 dollars each, but this one’s whistle is broken. This one just needs a good home.” She seemed genuinely touched that Oldest wanted it anyway, and used his own money to buy it. I was, too. But then again, what’s a whistle when you’ve clearly got so many stories to tell? I like this guy better, knowing he’s flawed.

At that same art fair, Middle found, among a cluster of handmade glass beads hanging on loops of ribbon, one with a price tag marked “free.” “Mom, what does this mean?” The woman working the booth assured us that it meant it was free, and while she was untangling it from the other beads she told Middle that the artist had hidden one free bead on each rack at her booth, and all the rest had already been found.

It was a good day for rare things. I started my day with friends who like to wake up early on Saturday mornings to run through the woods, and we were treated to a lovely pink sunrise, and fog over the water so thick it felt like we were at the edge of the world. At the end of the day, I got near the end of our current read-aloud (Ronia, the Robber's Daughter by Astrid Lindgren) and realized how much I was going to miss it when we were done, because of how full it is with wildness and sweetness and love.

Do these things speak to you? I remember one fall that I felt so lonely I didn’t notice the leaves changing color until it was almost too late, and I decided I didn’t ever want to miss that again. There have been harder times since then (and better times, too) but I try now, not to forget to see.

And sometimes those things just come, unasked for, and remind me not to stop trying.

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Thursday, September 13, 2012


(Sonata no. 2 in A minor for solo violin, 3rd movement, J.S. Bach)

It is tucked between a difficult fugue and a fourth movement that really wants to fly, quiet and lyrical and probably my favorite movement to play. This morning it is what I most want to listen to. I think it is the heartbeat threaded through the whole thing that appeals so much. That continual pulsing beneath a fluid upper line—this music tugs at me. Somehow, too, it glows.

It is cool and cloudy and wet outside. No rain right now, but I can hear the wet under the tires of the cars driving past. My feet are cold, but my coffee is strong and dark and hot. My microwave is a faithful friend, allowing me every day to drink my coffee as slowly as I want, but still enjoy it hot.

I just learned that today is Clara Schumann’s birthday. She is somebody I think I would have liked to get to know over coffee. Did you enjoy practicing more, or less, once you had children? Did you ever fall asleep while you were writing? How frustrated did you get when that thought was finally just making itself visible and somebody came in and they absolutely couldn’t wait for you to get it down on paper? Tell me what it was like for you, all that balancing. Did you end up being the person you wanted to be, in the end? Maybe when I was done with my questions I would confide in her. I just had a birthday, myself. I remember feeling shocked that 16 didn’t seem nearly as old as I thought it would, once I got to it. I still get that feeling, every single year.

That heartbeat carries you through, but it is also a touching point for the lyrical voice. Something to keep coming back to. A steadiness that allows freedom. Violinists don’t often get to be more than one voice at a time, but Bach makes it possible here. There is something about that pairing of steady and free, solidity and fluidity. Getting to be both, at the same time. It feels very peaceful.

And so I listen to this one movement, over and over again, and allow it to sink in deeply. I keep re-heating my coffee, and wrapping my cold fingers around the mug to warm them, and drinking slowly in order to enjoy my morning allotment as long as possible. I try to hold myself in one place to write, but find that my mind, as usual, is much happier to weave around, instead. It comes back to rest often, on how the music seems to glow, and on the heat and strength of this slow last cup of coffee, and on that recent birthday and how time keeps moving forward and how could I still feel so new at it all?

I’m not sure when the thought hit me, exactly, that if I wanted to be a certain kind of person someday when I was old, I might as well start living as if I were already her. At the triathlon I participated in on Sunday—my first, as part of a team—one of my teammates and I watched the very last swimmer come out of the water and get on her bike. She was at least 70. “Hey Karen, that’s gonna be you,” he said. Oh, absolutely. I would love to be that kind of woman.

I hope I still have more years ahead of me than behind. But I’m starting to believe that they go fast. I want to keep feeling new—at some things, at least. But maybe the fact that everything keeps moving forward is okay. The thought of stagnancy seems ominous. Maybe that pairing of steady and free, solidity and fluidity, that I’m listening to is a good thing to emulate. Maybe the key to aging gracefully has nothing to do with the color of your hair or how well your body works, but more to do with what you are creating, what pulses within you, what you touch back on. Tell me it’s about the warmth and strength and light.

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Monday, September 10, 2012

From Middle, with Love


Nope, this is not a bead. I just know a girl who likes to find treasures in driveways and parking lots. And she made me promise to share it. Hope today gives you something good, my friends.

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Time and a Place

For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven…

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak…

Always, there has been that tension between speaking and silence.

My senior year in high school, I often ate lunch at my locker. My schedule was different enough from my closest friends that it was easier to be alone than to walk through the commons-area trying to find a place for myself among others. Better to create my own place, just off to the side, leaning against a locker and eating my sack lunch, lost in a book.

I remember still, how it felt—lonely, but almost sacred. I loved that time to myself. But I remember, distinctly, leaving school at the end of the day and not being able to remember if I had spoken to anybody. There were days my mouth felt numb from lack of use.

I had close friends, and teachers I adored. I had acquaintances I smiled at and said hi to in the halls. Whenever we had a substitute teacher who mispronounced my name, both first and last, during role call, there was usually a chorus of voices that joined mine to correct him or her—“It’s Kah-ren! Kah-ren B-york!”

But really talking—asserting myself and speaking up—there was often a struggle there.

And there still is.

Because I don’t know how to reconcile the fact that I sometimes hate the sound of my own voice with the fact that I’m compelled to use it.

Because speaking up brings both connection and alienation.

Because often it all goes beyond words, anyway.

*       *      *

I’ve been thinking a lot about place recently. About how within all that silence in high school I was finding a place to be myself, learning how through art, and music, and writing, I could find a voice. How, at least for me, silence and space were necessary to cultivate a way to speak. And how, also, there was a danger of staying silent too long, and using that place of silence—that sanctuary—as a place to hide.

Since then I’ve learned that if silence has often felt like a sanctuary, speaking can feel that way as well.

Because speaking takes whatever-it-is outside of you, gives it a less-ghostly form.

Because you can learn a lot when your words reach somebody else. Maybe you aren’t crazy, after all. Maybe you aren’t as alone as you thought. Maybe you really can find the strength.

Because even if speaking up brings alienation—well, then you know, don’t you?

*      *       *

So I find sanctuary both in silence and in speaking. And I see danger in both. And I find myself right back in the same quandary: keep silent or speak? I know the Sunday School answers, and I want more than that. Is it enough to know for now that there really is a time for both? That one doesn’t always trump the other? Maybe.

I watch one child learning how his words and tone of voice reflect back on him, kindness or hurtfulness amplified. I watch another break her silence to experiment with any number of different voices, unsure which one is really hers. I watch a third discover that it’s true—sometimes you’re actually not allowed to talk, and other times you are, and it’s helpful to at least know what the rules are.

Oh child, I struggle with those things, too.

When does this wisdom thing kick in, anyway?

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Monday, September 3, 2012

Blue Moon

Somewhere above us Friday night, there was a blue moon. I would have loved to see it lighting the darkness. Instead we had rain, after a summer of almost none. And I looked out the window and saw something beautiful anyway.

It is amazing how quickly the green can return.

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