Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Theory of Cookies and Maybe Other Things, Too

Thankfully I had to run errands Saturday morning, or Valentine’s Day would have snuck up on me. Again. Yes, I knew it was sometime this month, and I reminded myself over and over that it would be good to prepare ahead of time. And actually, I am way ahead of where I've been other years. But I secretly suspect that all the good moms have been planning Valentine’s Day for at least a month and that by now all the cards are prepared, all the treats gathered together, all the surprises safely tucked away in anticipation of The Day.

I can imagine all sorts of extravagant ways to celebrate, but what I can provide this year is cookies. Along with part of a Monday afternoon to decorate them with my kids. And, since I’ve learned to take the same attitude towards frosting and sprinkles that I have towards art supplies, the cookies ended up being their own kind of extravagance.

Which brings me to what could easily be a family motto: A cookie is merely a vehicle for the frosting.

I find myself wanting to rethink that long-held belief. There is truth in it, but it's missing something important.

Because there is really no reason in the world for a cookie not to taste good. You can go sweet and rich (oh please do) or light and subtle, or even crunchy-healthy, and all will be well. But even if you are going to drown a cookie in frosting, even if its primary purpose is to look pretty (and I would argue that that is never the primary purpose), it must be able to stand on its own in terms of taste. There is no reason for a cookie to do otherwise.

Its purpose can be a whole lot more soulful than merely delivering frosting.

Because you learn from your life, and in your art, that what’s underneath and around means a lot. That the frame you put around a painting changes how people see the painting. That the inner voices in a string quartet, even if you are only paying attention to the melody, have an incredibly powerful role in what you hear. That the mode of delivery for your frosting seriously affects what you taste.

So maybe there’s no merely anything. Maybe the humblest part needs to be honored, instead, as the basis for everything else. If you really want that first bite to be what you’re hoping for.

Maybe this isn’t really about cookies. It’s certainly not about perfection, unless you are talking about the kind of perfection that makes good cookies or good art or good anything else—the kind of perfection that is concerned not with flawlessness, but with hitting its mark, straight and deep and true. Maybe it’s about starting at the core with something good—with the best you’ve got, actually—and working your way out from there. Maybe it’s about all parts working together toward the same goal. Maybe it’s about putting your heart into it from the beginning and leaving it out there until the end, even if you make a mess.

Maybe that’s the kind of perfection we all want, anyway.

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Friday, February 8, 2013


“Every burned book or house enlightens the world; every suppressed or expunged word reverberates through the earth from side to side.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
—Leonard Cohen

I carry deep within me the memory of a sound: a thick layer of broken ice—a whole lake-full of it, pale gray, coming to shore in waves. All those broken pieces hitting each other—it was musical. Like glass or wind chimes. I’ve been around many thawing lakes, but heard that particular music only once.

I hope some day I’ll hear it again.

It is the beauty of the sound that I hold on to, the fact that it was an effect of brokenness merely a side issue. Except that the brokenness, along with the buffeting of waves, was also the one necessary fact.

What comes out? What triumphs? What is revealed?

It strikes me that looking for silver linings can seem like a very cheap thing. Except that sometimes, when you either should be or are lying crushed on the floor, you realize that you have in your hand the slenderest silver thread. And it turns out to be amazingly strong. Enough to hold on to. Enough to bear your weight. It is no help at all for someone to point it out to you from afar. But when you are touching it it’s the most profound thing in the world.

This, I think, is the difference between pretty and gut-wrenchingly beautiful: light in the darkness, water when you are thirsty, rest when you are weary.

What is the overflow? What will you hold on to? What will you carry with you?

Some music for you today (Bruckner Symphony No. 7, 1st movt., or the whole symphony if you have time) and here’s why: I carry with me also the memory of a college orchestra rehearsal, and this piece, and the conductor stopping: “Do you hear that? Bruckner was an organist: he is practicing, filling a great cathedral with sound, and when he stops he hears in the distance the sound of a choir singing.” Yes, I hear it. The thunderous sound, and then not silence but silver threads, light coming fragmented and jeweled through stained glass, everything illuminated in sound and light.

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Monday, February 4, 2013

Counting Stars

Sometimes, when I am drilling something with my students or practicing with my daughters, I get out my counting stars. We make a chain, adding a star with every repetition. It is so nice to be able to see what you’ve done. Where you’ve been.

To work knowing that you are building something.

To that end, I will sometimes get out our big box of wooden blocks. One block for each repetition. What are you going to build? It is something that has to be carefully and wisely managed, because there is a temptation to focus too much on what’s being built, and not enough on that tricky passage we’re working on. But oh—when you find the right rhythm of practicing and choosing and building it is amazing what you can get done. Of course I’ll play that again. My castle is lopsided!

*       *       *

Yesterday afternoon I sent my girls outside to play in the snow until dark, and I practiced. They built a throne out of snow. Poured water over to make it smooth and strong. I smoothed out passages and shifts, glancing out the window to make note of their progress, and of how the world around us turned a deeper and deeper shade of blue. A window is a necessary component of practicing, I think—a good way to surface after periods of deep work.

*       *       *

In order to make something a part of you, you must practice it over and over.

How many times before it becomes muscle memory? How many more times before a skill becomes part of your soul? Part of the problem is that it is hard to see the work you’ve done. As your skill level goes up, so do your standards, and you are forever working and forever missing the mark. Except you start to notice that sometimes there are things that used to be hard that seem easier. Fluent, even. You don’t think about them long because there’s so much more work to be done. But the notes are more in tune and you can hear how they ring. And that thing you were trying to be better about happens a little more naturally, sometimes.

How long before what you practice changes you completely? And will you be able to look back and see what’s been built?

*       *       *

There is a boy in Youngest’s class who is haunting me this morning. I first noticed him when Youngest and I were sitting at the Practice Table at lunch. The Practice Table is where you can sit when your parents are visiting for lunch and there is not room to sit at your regular class table. It is also where you sit when you have been removed from your regular class table because you need to practice better behavior. On that particular day this boy was the only child at the table without a parent. He was sitting at the end, looking very small, watching Youngest and I joking about something. Smiling a little. He looked a lot like my shy, sensitive nephew, except with messier hair. I spoke to him, tried to include him in our fun. He did not answer, but he kept watching.

Today I was sitting next to Youngest in the gym, waiting with her for her teacher to come get the class to bring them to their room to start the school day. And suddenly this same boy was sitting next to us. Watching-but-not-watching. “I like your shirt. Those dragons are awesome.” He did not answer, but he looked down at one of the dragons, small and dark and delicate, climbing up his shirt.

“That’s ________. He doesn’t really do what the teacher likes,” Youngest whispered in my ear.

I spoke to him a few times, when we made eye contact, but he did not answer. At one point, the hem of his shirt just barely rested against my hand. Had he been that close to us before? A few moments later he shifted and was sitting farther away, his back to us.

And I wonder about this little boy I know so little about. I wonder what hurts him. I wonder what he saw, looking at us. I wonder how you reach out to a small stranger and let him know that even though you’re for-real smiling with your little girl, you know what hurt is, too. Maybe not his hurt, but hurt, just the same. I’ve been practicing, too. Learning to talk about what hurts, even. It is something that takes a lot of effort, but it changes you in a good way.

*       *      *

I wonder how much the ice throne in our yard will melt today. If my daughters will want to work more on it this afternoon. I wonder about practice, and how much it takes to master the smallest thing, and how hard it is, sometimes, to measure your own progress.

And the boy who doesn’t really do what the teacher likes—I wonder what he is practicing. And does he get the chance, ever, to count stars?

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