March Madness

I have lost my mind this month. There has been more big stuff than should fit in any one month and with all the flurry came an absolute standstill to any other creative expression. This is another way of saying I am in a writer’s slump with nothing to say and no interest in trying. Maybe this happens to people with multiple outlets. For a while I was abuzz with ideas and medium. I was writing songs, recording some of them, starting a children’s book project with an artist friend, cranking out decent poems, doing lots of blog posts and making some actual progress in water-color class. I have now downgraded to coloring in an adult coloring book because it soothes me and writing the occasional witty text. Oy!

I have missed drumming circle the last 2 or 3 times and we don’t ever meet on a schedule anyway. I am about to attend my monthly meeting with my writing buddy (who, not incidentally, is busily at work on a terrific family memoir meant to unlock long unsolved mysteries WHILE holding down a full-time job) with not one single thing to show her–for the second month in a row. I have locked my paints away and stopped going to class and no poems have popped into my head for weeks.

So what have I been doing? I have been reading other people’s writing as a lifeline to my old hopes of one day being them. I have sent a couple pieces in to an on-line magazine (both rejected as not quite their thing), I have cleaned my house from top to bottom (this occurs only annually) because my book club was coming, I have directed a musical revue of Fiddler on the Roof songs with 35 kids, I have held a piano recital with 44 performers and I have sung every moment of Holy Week with my church choir including a solo on Good Friday and a featured role portraying Mary Magdalene at the tomb, walking down the center aisle singing the old Baptist hymn “I come to the garden alone” dressed in all black.

One of my readings was a recent Anne Lamott book that was not even really her best work, but still made me feel like crap because I am not now and never will be Anne Lamott. Amidst it all I have a free-floating anxiety that I cannot for the life of me find a label for. Money is tight but it is always tight, because, like most people I know, when I accumulate a little cushion I go spend it —usually on trips I can’t really afford but feel entitled to and am determined to take. I have been trying to attend bi-weekly meditation class more often and yoga too because they sometimes make things pop into my head that are useful. The most recent was an “intention” but really more a mantra and life goal: BE HERE NOW. STAY CALM. SEND LOVE. The last one alone could be a doctoral thesis or just a really helpful forehead tattoo, but the others are just as necessary for my current state of mind chatter. Stop worrying so god damn much and try to enjoy the moments that are zooming by at lightening speed—-especially with a nearly 16 year-old in the house! And truly All will be well and All will be well and All with be very well so no point getting my knickers in a knot over the minutiae of every day challenges. This life really is a blip.

My minister said on Sunday that Mary Magdalene represents ALL of us–going sobbing to the tomb only to realize Jesus had come back to her in a different form and was with her always. We are never alone and we need not fear death, which is the greatest of all fears–the granddaddy. So seriously it is a little disingenuous to call yourself a believer and then fret every tiny thing that happens every single day.  Do you believe there is more than what and who we are here or not? If you believe–if I believe–then just LIVE, knowing that everything that happens, even the shitty stuff is for the greater good—something you are supposed to learn from or grow through, something that ultimately enriches your soul or at least prepares you in some way for whatever the next chapter holds—the one that comes AFTER earthly life. You can’t really have it both ways and I can’t imagine not believing. How do people even DO that?

I booked myself into a 5 day silent meditation retreat in the wilds of Oregon this June hoping that I might finally learn this universally acclaimed skill. I would love to get more centered and peaceful and kinder but I will gladly settle for just being what Dan Harris of ABC News calls 10% Happier in the title of his book on meditation which came right on the heels of a mortifying on-air meltdown.  We are just all wound too freaking tight–at least I am and it always seems to me that most other people are too (maybe that’s who I attract, like a magnet!) although Tom was not. He worried from time to time, but he really had the calm, let it be, enjoy the moment thing down and he was helping train me before he got sick. A woman at my church just published a book about her faith journey and although much of it is too born again for me to relate to she does talk about the culture of busy–rushing around like crazy people and not slowing down long enough to even notice our loved ones much less others in the world who could use our undivided time and attention. I am that person and I’d like to zip out of her skin like a shedding snake and leave her by the side of the road.

Working on it. That’s all I’ve got.

 

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Spring Cleaning

My book club seems to come here in March. I only host once a year and there is no set schedule, but somehow books I suggest that get voted onto our list seem to fall in March and I wind up volunteering to host, despite having literally not enough seats if everyone shows up. Last year my hosting date fell only a month after Tom died, but I wanted them all to come. I needed my living room to morph back from hospice ward into a room where wine is served and laughter rings out and big ideas are discussed. So I asked them to please come and discuss the book and eat and drink but NOT to ask me how I was, because I was fine as long as no one asked me but the second they did I stopped being fine on a dime.

This year March was a jam packed month and I was regretting having offered to host.  My discussion preparation was a little lax since I’d read the book a year earlier and couldn’t really remember the finer points—like who some of the characters were! But my cleaning was thorough. My cleaning was, by my extremely low standards, spectacular. I got out Tom’s Rainbow vac and went to town. I dusted with the lemon Pledge, I floor-washed with the Murphy’s, I took the duster to its full extension and went for every molding and corner cobweb. For refreshments I went as high as $9.99 on a couple of bottles of wine at Trader Joe’s! I drove to the French bakery and bought a ficelle (baby-sized baguette) to cut up and serve with stinky cheese since the book was set in France. (Franny and I were once at a birthday celebration for a dear friend in France where the cheese platter smelled like a cross between a locker room and the city dump. We could barely breathe, much less EAT!)

I wanted to dust or wipe down every surface in sight so I took all the pictures off the mantle, removed the shrine to Tom on the window sill and took down all the taped up quotes of comfort and inspiration that covered my bathroom cabinets. Alyssa said, “Oh, you took down your quotes” in a disappointed voice, but I knew it was time. Even in cultures where they wear black and have a formal mourning protocol 12 months is enough. I do not love nor miss him any less because the daily reminders are gone. As cheesy as it sounds he actually does live in my heart and always will. I don’t need to be reminded every time I turn my head nor remind everyone who comes here that I am sad, that I have suffered a horrible loss, that a wonderful man died far too soon. Alyssa commented on how much bigger our house looked when clean. I had literally created space by removing clutter and it felt good. I’m not sure what I will do with all that extra space. Time will tell. Right now just having it seems enough.

A book written by a friend from church choir who hails from Kenya speaks about treating your house as if God lived there. When Tom was alive I kind of did—at least I made a far greater effort to curb my life-long messiness. I wanted there to be enough space for Tom. I wanted him to feel comfortable and cared for. All those good intentions vanished when he died and my decades-long habit of sloth won out. But I like thinking that God lives here. If I can’t get motivated to keep a tidy house for myself or my daughter maybe I can do it for God!  But he’s not getting a shrine either. There’s enough of that at church. He’ll have to settle for some flat surfaces that aren’t covered in books, bills and projects. That would be victory enough.

My piano is freshly tuned AND dusted and is graced with a vase of lovely pink tulips. Spring, we are all cleaned up and awaiting your arrival. The forsythia is minutes from bursting out into yellow splendor and from then on Michigan only gets better and better. I’m already taking lunch outside, huddled between the garage door and the Buick in a perfect patch of sun. I can do ANYTHING with a little help from the sun’s warmth and my divine new tenant.  Maybe even slay the messy demon. Maybe even start to fill the unfillable hole.

Making Music

This was a big music making weekend at our house. My daughter went to the state solo and ensemble festival where kids are graded by judges and nerves run high. She had a bad experience last year, but has grown as a player and a person in the intervening 12 months and this time she was prepared both musically and mentally and received a first division rating (the scale is 1-4) for both her clarinet solo and a lovely duet she played with a flutist. I skipped the social event of the season Saturday night (my town’s charity auction) because I wanted to take her out for a celebratory dinner and let her know how proud I was of her hard work and dedication. I am so glad that she loves to make music.

Yesterday it was my turn. My new church choir sang a 50 minute cantata for Palm Sunday, took a break for a beautiful breakfast spread and then went back for the second service and sang it all again. There were enough people on the second soprano part so my choir director asked me to sing first soprano which in certain sections was uncomfortably high. As I told a fellow choir member, I can manage about two high As per day and they both got used up in the first service. By the 11:00 I had moved smack into the screech owl zone. But we got through it and I had the great good fortune to sit next to Nancy, an extremely kind woman who is also an excellent musician and can actually hit all those As. I just tucked in behind her and drafted, like the last cyclist in a bike pack.

My youngest daughter calls herself an atheist which causes me to question the wisdom of paying a lawyer so much money ten years ago to assure that her church activities would continue post-divorce. She doesn’t see her dad anymore, but he is a completely unrecovered Catholic and religion hater and would, I believe, take great satisfaction in her lack of belief, which would in turn make her crazy to have affirmed one of his positions! Nonetheless, she agreed to come to the cantata because she didn’t want my new church to think she didn’t exist and because a school friend of hers also sings in the choir. I told Katie, a charming young woman with killer pipes who was singing one of the solos, that my atheist daughter was there and that her solo might be my best shot at bringing Alyssa into the fold! It didn’t work, but it did lead to a good discussion later about God and secular humanism and faith. Anything that makes a teenager want to talk is a victory.

After church I hustled out to the Steinway showroom which I had rented for my annual piano recital. I had far more students than normal playing this year and I asked for extra space and chairs to be sure each family could be fully accommodated. There was an actual stage and spotlights and a big fat green tape X right in the middle which served as the perfect spot for bow-taking, a skill we had practiced almost as much as our recital pieces. I think concert etiquette is worth learning so we acknowledge applause briefly and graciously and we dress as if attending a special event.

Like most piano teachers I have some funny recital stories and I tell them to the kids every year right before recital time. We start with a multiple choice question.

If something should go wrong while you are playing your piece you should:

  • Start crying uncontrollably
  • Make a scene and run off stage
  • Keep going no matter what

We agree on choice number 3 and then I demonstrate by playing a horrible version of one of our songs, chock full of wrong notes and then stand up, smiling broadly and take my bow like I was Beethoven.  I then share one student’s first recital story from when he was just six. He put his hands in the wrong place, I moved them, he was furious that I had interfered, put his head on the keys and sobbed. I gently tried to urge him to take his seat but he was immobilized and his mom finally had to carry him, still in the bent over posture, back to his seat. He is now an 8th grader and yesterday he played both a crazy complicated blues tune and a classical piece perfectly and by heart. I also tell The Ann Robertson story. At her piano recital in high school my sweet sister forgot her piece halfway through, stood up, walked to the front of the stage and said, “I’m sorry, I cannot go on”, then turned and made a dramatic exit stage right. The world is strewn with would-be musicians who gave it up after some recital trauma so I try very hard to keep the tone light and give kids plenty of less formal chances to play for people, like at senior centers where anybody under the age of 20 is an automatic rock star even if they just play Chopsticks. But yesterday went off without a hitch. Everybody showed, everybody brought enthusiastic cheering sections, the crowd had some good singers who embraced our sing-a-long numbers and the parents brought great treats—which, let’s face it, is what it’s all about for many of the kids.

There is something powerful about music making. It is not only good for the soul, but good for the world. My yoga teacher thanks us after every class for taking the time to come and practice and thus shine our lights and send positive energy into the world. I believe the same thing happens when people make music. It is a beautiful act that brings joy to the world and unites people. I tell the kids that it isn’t really about them or how they play, but rather it is a gift they are offering to the audience, a chance to share something of themselves that will make people happy. Nearly everyone appreciates music, but not everyone makes music. They should. They can. The Simply Music motto is “A world where everyone plays” because the founder, Neil Moore, believes that every human being is deeply, profoundly musical. As teachers it is our mission, our duty, our contribution to the world, to help people express their innate musicality.

I recently got a call from an older woman who wanted to begin lessons but was convinced she would not succeed at piano. Her husband bought her a very nice keyboard as an expression of his faith in her, but she would not let him take it out of the box. I convinced her to come over for just a sample lesson to see what might unfold. I started as I always do with her at the piano and me on my teaching stool and said “Tell me what you see” hoping for just a simple description of black and white keys, but she said “Terror”. We talked about that and I realized the truth behind the words of another adult student who had called his weekly lesson therapy. I would make a lousy therapist (My sessions would consist of me saying “Quit your whining. Buck up. Go make something happen in your life. That will be $150. See you next week”) but there are a few demons that come out at the piano bench and must be gently dealt with. One man started to tear up when he learned his first song. His entire family and his wife’s entire family were all musically talented and he had always felt like an outsider who could never be part of the fun. I think his wife actually cried when he played for her, knowing of his longing to make music.

My parents both had lovely singing voices. My dad couldn’t read a note, but he displayed his musical tastes by bullying the music director at every church he ever served into making sure his Top 10 favorite hymns got regular air time. My siblings and I can sing every verse of Holy Holy Holy in our sleep. When I was three my mom played a recording of Un bel di, Madame Butterfly’s heartbreaking aria and then explained what she was singing about. I think I was hooked right then and there. She reports that in kindergarten I would pop up at random moments and start belting out Silent Night. My sister has a beautiful voice and I wanted nothing more than to grow up and sound like her. When we sing duets there is a special harmonic thing that happens that never occurs when we sing with others. It is literally like we are on the same vibrational plane and it gives us chills although I don’t think listeners notice anything special. I didn’t major in music in college because I was afraid that having to learn all the theory, what I thought of as the boring, mechanical part of music, would suck the magic and joy out of music making. I feel so lucky to have found my way to a place where I can make music all day everyday although the route through banking and classroom teaching was a long and circuitous one.

At presentations I tell people that music is my best friend, my constant companion and my go-to when I am happy and sad. It has gotten me through many tough times and my kids know when I am in a good mood as I sing my heart out—-annoyingly repeating some favorite phrase from a song 100 times. I have traveled the world in choirs and had the thrill of sharing stages with opera legends. I have made wonderful friends throughout my life because of our common love of music-making, including Tom who almost never missed a Thursday night with his bandmates. Even when he was sick and undergoing chemo he would drive an hour to make music with his friends and nearly always came home happy and energized.

There is power in music making. Power to heal, power to comfort, power to share and connect. I tell all my Kindermusik moms that no matter what their spouse or second grade teacher said, their children LOVE their singing voice and truly are soothed and comforted and entertained by it. We practice singing out in class and feel the amazing vibrations we create in our bodies and the world. We sing to the babies about everything we do and they look at us with wonder and joy and learn by example how to find and use their own voices.

So go make some music. Hum while you clean the house. Teach yourself guitar chords. Pick up the dusty instrument you have in the attic. Belt out a hymn in church. Keep trying. Practice may not make perfect, but it does make better and the better you get the more you want to play. The more you play, the better you feel and happier people make a kinder world.

That will be $150. (C’mon—isn’t it as valuable as real therapy?!) See you next week.

God

I went to an overnight a number of years ago with a bunch of adult women. It was held at the Canadian cabin of an opera friend and I knew about half of the 15 or so women present. Everyone was told to bring a question they would like the group to discuss. We put them in a basket anonymously and the hostess pulled them out randomly. The one I remember best was “What is your image of God?” It seemed silly to me. Everyone knows what God looks like—old guy, beard, kindly manner—just a grandpa version of all those Jesus pictures. But it turned out I was the ONLY person in the room who pictured that. People talked about light, energy waves, collective goodness. Nobody even said “a chubby black woman” which was the form God took in the book The Shack. This whole exchange not only shocked me but made me feel childish. My atheist ex-husband had once hurt me deeply by referring to my belief in God as nothing more than an infantile longing for daddy. Suddenly it seemed he might be right!

In the book The Lovely Bones the murdered young girl who narrates from heaven says that each person’s heaven is exactly what they most loved or had always dreamed of. As I recall, hers contained a gazebo in a park as that was what she liked best. That means my dad’s has an awesome golf course and Tom’s a killer guitar. This somehow freed me to be ok with my babyish God image. It’s alright that I picture God as a loving father who holds us and says kind and encouraging things and wants only what is in our very best interests—in the long-term, grow-your-soul kind of way. Thinking of energy fields or “the universe” as my higher power just doesn’t resonate so I am sticking with Grandpa.

My new minister is tackling the toughest of all sermon topics right now. He is preaching a series on why there is evil in the world; basically the Why Bad Things Happen to Good People quandry. He isn’t promising answers (smart, because if there were any I think we’d all be sitting fatter and happier than we are) but just a thorough examination. I think it takes an enormous amount of courage to take on this topic, especially during Lent when attendance and expectations are both pretty high. He laid out the big four seemingly incompatible assumptions:

  1. There is a God
  2. God is all powerful
  3. God is loving and good
  4. There is suffering in the world

He says that most people of faith have to let go of one of those four things in order to make any sense of the world. Rabbi Kushner who wrote the famous book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People had to let go of #2. God exists, loves us and weeps with us when horrible things happen, but doesn’t have the power to prevent or fix them. Others let go of #3. There is a God who is all powerful but he does not always seem loving because, like any good parent, he needs to teach us difficult lessons. Non-believers have already let go of #1 in favor of belief in humanity or chaos or pure science (no intelligent design here, thank you very much). Some people seem to be able to let go of #4 by what looks to me like denial—there is no real suffering because nothing of this world is real. At the “real” level we all exist as just spirit and thus none of what goes on here is of any lasting import. YIKES! I hate all of those choices. I am literally taking notes during this sermon series as I really want to know where a super smart and cool guy like my minister comes down on this question.

In the meantime I am going to compromise. I am sticking with Grandpa who loves me and does sometimes need to teach me stuff but not by inflicting horrible tragedies. Like most people I am compiling a very long list of questions for him when I get to heaven. But after Tom died I read virtually every book ever written by people who have had near-death experiences and it seems that’s not really how it goes down. Everybody describes the same scenario—the white light, the angel guide, being greeted by loved ones and a feeling of love, warmth, happiness and well-being so powerful that in one of the books a devoted mother of four with a great life on earth reports being devastated at the news that she had to go back to earth as it was not yet her time to die. She said all those questions you want to ask God just VANISH. The answers are suddenly so clear or maybe so unnecessary that there is just no need to pose the questions at all.

We live in our heads. We value our intellect above all else. We really want to figure stuff out and when we can’t it makes us bat-shit crazy! We are smart, we are resourceful. We can do this! Somebody must be withholding information like when the CIA and FBI both had pieces that could’ve prevented 9/11 if only they’d had a working relationship. But I am ok with the part of this conundrum that says “We may not actually know everything. We may not even be able to know everything”. It is maddening and a little insulting considering how highly we value our fine minds. I am not a patient person. I want answers and I want them now. But when my kids get to a certain point in explaining technology to me, where I feel like a 100 year-old woman whose brain is about to explode, I put my fingers in my ears and sing “la la la” at full volume. It is too much. I cannot take it in and make sense of it and that’s ok. Others can. I am really good with two year-olds and could teach pretty much anybody to play the piano. I don’t have to understand every last thing in our complicated world.

And there is this: Most deep, profound, lasting, life-changing growth seems to be a by-product of suffering. Alcoholics can’t recover before hitting rock bottom. Fields have to be burned to renew the earth for future planting. It may take some very deep digging, but usually even the most horrible event has some tiny kernel of hope or renewal buried in it. In Hanya Yanagihara’s beautiful but dark novel A Little Life, a character writes of the accidental breaking of a cherished keepsake by saying “This whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.” Does God do that rearranging? I don’t know. But I am keeping my chips on that square, because it brings me comfort. Because it makes me feel less alone. And yes, maybe because even at age 61, I could use a grandpa. Couldn’t we all? Amen.

Life

No, Peter, I cannot have coffee. Thank you for wanting to know me, to minister to me,

but ….

I am an open wound that has only, just now, grown the thinnest imaginable layer of skin,

so fragile it cannot risk exposure

to air, to light, to even the kindness of others

for fear that it will split open

and the healing will have to start all over again

and there are only so many times we have the energy, the will, to begin again.

Only so many times can we brave the world, trying so hard to find beauty and joy and love

(most of all, love) amidst the pain and ruin.

It is hard work this thing called life.

It does not always seem like the best option.

And yet we choose it, it chooses us

and we go on.

Honored Witness

The woman begins to cry.

 

She believes her daughter’s death

the horrible, untimely, drug-fueled death

is the reason she has no fight left

the reason Donald Trump and his polarizing rhetoric that has liberals making their first Canadian relocation plans since Vietnam—

is to her just “a blip”, noise—

signifying nothing.

 

But her teacher says no.

That it was not the death but her own hard work,

her own devotion to her healing, her health, her journey that has brought this change,

and that she, the teacher, has been an

“honored witness” to it.

 

Then I begin to cry—

as an honored witness to this exchange

thinking of the hours, the months of work

that has preceded it—

Knowing once again that witnessing each other’s lives

is the greatest gift we can give.

Just being there

to see and encourage and say

“Yes, that happened.”

“I was there.”

“You were not alone.”