Saturday, August 31, 2013

What Stays at the Table Long After

I keep flowers on the table too long. I’d like to be a fresh-flowers-everyday sort of person, but so far in this life I have tended to be a little too haphazard with that kind of detail. The flowers that make it to our table usually mark something: a recital, an illness, a birthday. Even those that are just-because mark something: welcome home; I love you; I thought of you.

So I leave them in their spot of honor. Beyond the point, usually, where I could dry them and keep them forever (and then what do you do with the dust they gather?) I leave them to brown at the edges and drop petals and droop ever-downward. Yes I notice. Yes I might be lazy. But I keep seeing the gift: Congratulations; I hate that you’re sick; I just wanted you to see this bit of cheeriness every day. There’s always a twinge when I finally decide to take action, petals dropping madly as I carry the vase away from the dining room table. It’s so hard to let go.

Can I pretend that, in the spirit of a Dutch still-life, I am allowing the transitory nature of life to sit with us at the table while we eat? Welcoming the fact that all of it is all the more precious because it’s only for a time?


I keep seeing the flowers in the moment I received them. It’s a moment I don’t want to lose, and even as I hold on, I am reminded of how quickly things pass. Even so, the gift remains.

A seed, maybe, and fertile ground.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013


“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” William Butler Yeats

On our second day of meeting together one of my students at The Violin Project announced that he was "doing this" only because he really wanted to play guitar. I told him that was fine with me, and asked him what kind of guitar he wanted to play—rock? Country? Blues? Classical?


The next day I showed all of them this while they ate their snack. Because while I have no intention of standing in the way of this boy's dream, I thought he should know that violins can rock, too.

I love classical music, and I love violin. Mostly, though, I just love music. I focus on classical and violin because that’s where my training was. It's what I know and do best. What I want my students to realize though, even at the very beginning, is that while I’m teaching them to do very specific things (stand still, listen carefully, hold the bow this way, put your violin on your shoulder like this, work on this particular piece of music next,) I am really only providing them with tools. Those tools mean freedom—to express, to explore, to create.

I won’t pretend to teach rock or blues or jazz or fiddling. But I absolutely want to help my students know and love the richness of their instrument. They should know that learning an excellent bow hold is deeply connected to what you can do with it once you’ve got it down.

So we’ve been watching/listening to music, all sorts, so the kids can get an idea of what can be done with a violin:
You never know which sparks will ignite, or where.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Listen (Play It the Way You Would Sing It)

Family Camp a few weeks ago: we were singing, and Youngest crawled into my lap. When she pressed her head against my chest I must have stopped singing, wondering if she was okay.

She sat up slightly. “Keep singing.” Then she pressed her ear against my chest. That’s when I realized she was listening, feeling the vibrations of my voice.

I asked her about it later. “Were you listening to me sing?”

“Yeah. I could kind of hear you differently. Like, ‘Doooooooooooooh’” she held her hands out by either side of her head and shook them slightly to illustrate.

    *     *     *

I remember as a child calling my mom for something; she was upstairs, I was downstairs. And once while I called out, “Mo-ommm!” my lips formed a spit bubble, and the word sounded different. Soon I was trying to make a bubble every time I called “Mom!” and then I tried the word with my hands over my ears, then with my fingers stuck in my ears, then one-eared, then ears rapidly covered and uncovered. I don’t remember when my mom showed up to see what was the matter. By the time she got there I can’t imagine I knew what I’d wanted. I was too busy playing with sound, listening to my voice in all its permutations.

I wonder, now, how many times that happened.

    *     *     *

The summer between my junior and senior year of college I attended a wonderful music festival in the mountains of Colorado. It was a fabulous opportunity—9 weeks of intense orchestra playing, two programs a week of important repertoire, much of which I had never before played. What I kept to myself while I was there was that I was there as an alternate. Second (or maybe 3rd?) choice, and I didn’t want anybody else to suspect that maybe I didn’t really belong there. I practiced a lot, but there’s only so much cramming you can do in 2 ½-3 days.

What helped me more than anything was learning a new way to listen.

Maybe a deeper way says it better. I don’t know how to describe it, exactly, except to say that I learned to tune in to the other instruments, and to the orchestra as a whole, in a way I never had before. I needed to do more than simply play my part at the same time as everybody else. Really participating meant a kind of listening that followed along with my peers. I had to anticipate, respond, join in.

*     *     *

Playing on automatic is frighteningly easy. Finger here, finger here, note, note, note. This-then-that. When I was a child and teachers were trying to get me to engage with the music, they most often told me to play it the way I would sing it, or to sing along with myself as I played.

It works.

Singing along with yourself in your head makes for playing that is engaged, aware, alive. It creates music that communicates and responds.

That’s something more than playing with the right timing, or being completely in tune.

And I’ve been thinking that this is something that extends into the rest of life. I think about basic interactions, and conversations, and relationships, and it’s true of them as well: hearing is good. Listening and understanding is even better. But listening in a way that is active and engaged, that follows the other person as if you were singing a duet together—anticipating where the other person is going and moving-with, but at the same time always ready, responsive, for the quick 180s and subtle inflections you never expected—that’s the kind of interaction or conversation or relationship you remember and crave and strive for.

What would that be like, living it the way you would sing it?

Some inspiration for you (Leontyne Price and Carlo Bergonzi, Aida, "O terra addio." 5 ½ minutes, but feels longer, in the best of ways.)



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Monday, August 19, 2013

First Day

The box violins are ready, the bows are ready. Everything is packed, waiting by the door. I’ve read, and imagined, and planned.
This afternoon seven children and I are embarking on something of an adventure. Am I ready? That’s a tough question. This is an experiment—part dream, part doing-what-I-know-how-to-do, part emulating what has worked really well for others. All mixed-up into what I guess is my own, new, thing.
I worry about messing it up, boring the kids, going too slow, going too fast, revealing what a _______ I am to everybody who hasn’t already figured it out, disappointing people who encouraged me, disappointing people who donated money, disappointing parents, students, myself. I worry I will run out of material, overwhelm everybody, talk too much, feel too shy, act too weird, lose my nerve, fall flat on my face.
And then I remember: this isn’t just my thing. It’s our thing—mine, my students’, my family’s, the school’s, the community’s. And together, with care and listening and work, we can make something good.
Life is art. I believe that more every day.

(The Violin Project is on Facebook. Come visit.)

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Treasure Hunt (What Hope Feels Like to Me)

At some point the hunt must become a habit.

When you feel very much in the dark, when you are entirely surrounded by it, isn’t it natural to look for the light? To head toward what shines? It’s scary to move through all that darkness—anything could be there, waiting. But those little glimmers in the distance draw you forward. Gradually your eyes grow accustomed—not to the dark itself, but to finding the bits of light within it. You start to suspect you are actually in a place pricked everywhere with light, and you drag your feet less as you go forward.

And so maybe you feel numb—

but you see this and know tenderness:

you see this and know you don’t need perfection:

you see this and you know that fragile survives—thrives, even:

All these things shine. And you gather them, treasure upon treasure, and you hardly realize the strength of all that light.

Eventually, you start to wonder at what has accumulated in your heart. Some days it blazes like a fire. Some days it is less, but you rarely have to remind yourself to look for the light anymore. You turn toward it without thinking.


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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Duet: A Story

Once upon a time a man planted a tree. A delicate Japanese maple, that he had wanted to plant for a very long time. He planted it in a sunny yard, in questionable soil, during a very hot summer.

It was in fact early on in the second summer of a drought.

His wife watched this. She was skeptical, because of the heat, and the tenderness of the tree, and their track record for keeping plants, especially delicate ones, alive. She liked the tree, but she did not want to watch it die. And so she was rather sorry to see it planted in their yard.

The drought continued. Flowers died. Their grass turned brittle and yellow. All the leaves on the delicate Japanese maple dried out.

They waited, not with much hope.

Spring came again, and flowers, and green grass. Not, however, a single new leaf on the Japanese maple. They did not talk much about the tree.

One day, a small red leaf appeared near the base of the tree. It struck the woman as odd. Hopeful-but-not-too-hopeful. The tree still looked dead. Chopping it down seemed wise. But they did not chop it down.

The summer continued. The tree continued to look dead. But the small red leaf grew a little, and another leaf appeared, and another.

That summer was another summer of drought. But the tree produced leaves where it shouldn't. And the woman watched.

She wasn't sure when it happened, exactly, the thing she was waiting for. But at some point she realized the tree was talking to her. Not out loud, but in a tree-ish sort of way, and she was a woman who liked to listen for that sort of thing. 

As she listened, she realized it was not speaking of foolish things, the way she expected it to. It spoke of hope. She did not know if she could take the tree-ish words to heart. But she kept listening.

And one day, not because of the tree but because of the circumstances of life itself, she realized that the tree was not only speaking but singing. She realized, too, that she could sing along with it.

So she sang. And she was glad, at last, to have this crazy dead-but-not-dead tree in her yard.


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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cherry Sorbet

Start with two heaping cups of halved cherries. Assume that any recipe that calls for heaping anything will be good, but maybe especially heaping fruit.
Notice: fingers stained with cherry juice. Shining fruit, dark red.
Make a syrup with sugar and water.
The promise of something simple and sweet is enticing. The motions of cutting into fruit, hollowing out pits, stirring until sugar becomes one with water, are absorbing. Music in the background, and sunlight. The children are quiet but not dangerously-so. Think about a friend’s words and how they hit home, even if they shifted slightly in the hitting: I pour into other people’s lives, I look for ways to bring them comfort and happiness. But I can’t find joy anywhere myself, right now.

Yes. These feelings are familiar. What to do but keep looking? Keep pouring out. Keep caring for others, keep trying to care for yourself. Make cherry sorbet—not because there’s time, not because things make sense, not because life actually feels like a bowl of cherries. Do it as an act of faith.
Notice the sun on the fruit. Hear the music. Feel the graininess of sugar through the wooden spoon. Anticipate the flavor, the coolness, and leave everything else aside for a while.
Offer something sweet.


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Thursday, August 1, 2013

What I Brought Home

I’ve been on vacation, with spotty internet access, for two weeks. First a week of percussion camp for Oldest in Minneapolis, then a week of Family Camp in Michigan. Haven’t written much. Most of this month, in fact has been spent away from home. Writing, picture-taking, even reading, have been spotty. I’m looking forward to getting into a real routine in a few weeks. And at the same time “Summer is not over yet…Summer is not over yet…Summer is not over yet” is running in a continual loop in my head.

I’m home now, wrestling with laundry and email and phone calls and schedules. Writing and picture-taking and reading are still taking a back seat…

I wonder how I’ll look back on this summer. A lot of it has been about being in difficult places, and also about rest, and recovery. And I’m not done with any of those things, even though I’m feeling stronger.

Vacation was good. Time and rest and friends and experiences. I’ve never been big on buying souvenirs, but I always bring things home with me. This time was no different:


A note from Middle, given to me before I left for Minneapolis.

Wasabi peas. My dad keeps me supplied from Trader Joe’s when I visit, because the only kind I can get at home are dyed bright green and I refuse to buy those.

Dirty shoes (= adventures.)

Taller, older, more complicated children. I want to stop myself from saying it’s happening so fast, their growing up, because I was always so annoyed when adults said it to me. But it’s true, and so what if it’s a cliché? It’s shocking enough to seem worth mentioning.

Notes. The rough beginnings of things I want to write about, the titles of things I want to read, the thoughts and images I want to keep and play with and internalize.

Conversations. I carry them close, let them work in and on me.

Sore muscles. Mostly from a climbing wall last week. (Yes, I'm proud.) Having pushed myself to do hard things is something I want to carry as close as my notes and conversations. I’ve spent a fair amount of my life hesitating and shrinking back, and it’s a habit I want to shed completely. Slowly, I’m teaching myself.

Fewer sore muscles than I could have. Not because I’m terribly strong but because I spent so much less energy holding on for dear life when I tried hard things. It’s comforting to know that physical challenges are like performing: you can grow accustomed to putting yourself out there, at least enough to believe you will survive. Zip line, high ropes course, Tarzan swing—I am learning to trust the ropes.

The memory of a roller coaster ride with Oldest. I have not been on a roller coaster, not a big one anyway, since some time in high school. And I absolutely love that I still love them.
*     *     *
I think I came back richer. I’m determined to not forget.


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