Saturday, June 30, 2012

An die Musik

"I am going there to change my life."

This is what I said last week of my impending trip to Westminster Choir College and the week-long summer Conducting Institute. I said it with some measure of irony. It's a big statement, and what if I were to come back with my life not changed?

But I hoped.

I hoped, and here I am, at the end of the week, singing better, feeling free, exhaling as well as inhaling when I conduct. I've said hello to my past and reacquainted myself with the music inside me. I've heard other people's stories, told my own, and marveled at what music and truth and trust can do.

So that tomorrow I can go home and change my life.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Day Three

We sang Nänie tonight, a Brahms setting of poem by Schiller.

The poem begins,"Auch das Schöne muß sterben!" Which means "Even the beautiful ones must die!"

Brahms was acquainted with the death of beautiful ones--Robert Schuman, other friends, Schiller himself. The music--why use words to describe it? You have to hear it, feel it lift in sadness, jab with anger, explore the size and weight of Brahms' grief. The gods weep and the goddesses. It is hard to bear--that people cease to be.

But at the end:

Auch ein Klaglied zu sein im Mundder Geliebten, ist herrlich,

Denn das Gemeine gebt Klanglos zum Orkus hinab.


Even a lament that is in the mouth of a loved one ist glorious,

Because the common ones go soundless into the abyss.

Remembering, grieving keeps something alive of the beautiful ones who are gone.

Day Two

(June 26, 2012)

Day Two at Westminster

In ten:

1. Sing with Sabine. Lift your leg to find those high easy overtones.

2. Breath with Nova Thomas. Opera lady--narrow black capris, wedgies, floaty purple top over an ample bosom. Dark eyes, expressive face. Jokes. Breath exercises. Breathing is so much easier than I thought.

3. Connections. In a circle breathing. In a circle conducting. I have the face that says hi, yes, I’ll talk to you, let’s do it together. (And then I have to stay friendly!)

4. Movement in three planes--really on three axes--table plane, door plane (verticals), and somersault plane (not its real name? but forward, backward, the third dimension)

5. Then freely moving. Like putting on my Sunday slip and dancing around the living room as a five-year-old.

6. Conducting--sucky me. Tired, concentration gone. Two-beat screwed up, and what about this shoulder tension? The ache? The tightness.

7. Lecture tonight on “body architecture” and I get my shoulder joint remapped. The ball and socket joint is in my armpit! Think the movement there, the pivot there, and the tight muscles I’m envisioning in the top of my shoulder go away. Throw in some wrist issues that I’m going to apply to computer ergonomics as well as conducting and I’d say that was a very good hour.

8. A “big walk” with my roommate from Beijing. Her arms swinging big, mine just comfortably, we wheel through downtown Princeton, free and talking and we didn’t get lost. Way more energy when I got back.

9. Which is a good thing because my watch is running out of energy and running slow and this is why I was late to Master Class today because the watch ran down. But by the time I figured out the watch was slow it was late afternoon and somehow I lost a half hour from my dinner break--at least in my head. Which may explain the late bedtime.

10. But before bed, and the final studying, I talked kids and music and opera and traded iTunes files with my new friend from China.

It’ll do, pig.


(Monday, June 25)

So I’m at the Conducting Institute at Westminster Choir College. An hour of wonderful, relaxed vocalizing began the day, and then we started to sing through repertoire. A rainy Monday morning. Green summer, growing things, richness in the air.

The first piece of music—something simple: “Homeward Bound,” words and music by Marta Keen, arranged by Mack Wilberg. The text:

In the quiet misty morning
when the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing
and the sky is clear and red,
When the summer’s ceased its gleaming,
when the corn is past its prime,
When adventure’s lost its meaning
I’ll be homeward bound in time.
Bind me not to the pasture;
Chain me not to the plow
Set me free to find my calling
And I’ll return to you somehow.

If you find it’s me you’re missing,
if you’re hoping I’ll return,
To your thoughts I’ll soon be list’ning . . .

Somewhere right about there I quit singing. An hour of playful vocalizing before the sightreading had left my throat, as singers say, open. So the tears could pour in, then rise to my eyes and stream down my face, as the music continued: the road I’ll stop and turn.
Then the wind will set me racing
as my journey nears its end
And the path I’ll be retracing
when I’m homeward bound again.

It was Lon, my sainted husband, just there somehow on his own path. And it was children leaving home.

How does music do that? And so quickly, so effortlessly?

I cried like that once years ago, when Lon was lost in dementia and my life was constant stress. I went to yoga class, and lying on the mat, in those minutes of pre-class quiet, I let go and the tears ran down from the corners of my eyes, across my cheekbones, and, unpoetically, into my ears. No sobbing, no catching of the breath. And I couldn’t stop.

This morning I tried to get back into the music in order to stop crying, but it wasn’t going to happen. I could not govern my throat until we moved on to another piece of music.

Grief stays inside you, is you, is part of you for a long, long time. The waves of loss rise when their overtones sound. Like music.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Workout Three, Week Two

I just finished Workout Three of Week Two of Couch-to-5K. If I stick with the schedule in the app, I'll be able to run 2.5 or 3 miles continuously sometime right around my birthday at the end of July. If I stick with the schedule, and if my knees hold out. I learned last night on the Couch-to-5K web site that knees absorb 2.5 times as much force when you run as when you walk. This injures tissue, but with rest in between workouts, the tissue repairs itself, in fact, becomes stronger than it was before.

I hope this is true. And I hope it is as true for me now as it was when I ran when I was in my twenties. In fact, I hope it's even more true, because when I was in my twenties I ran through the pain of heel spurs, shin splints and inflamed Achilles tendons and didn't worry too much about long-term injuries. These days I have friends my own age who have had knee replacement surgery, which reminds me that bodies and body parts are finite. They wear out.

On the other hand, I have met 73-year-old Doris Schertz who has won her age group in the Boston Marathon--twice. She, like me, is a former La Leche League Leader, and she didn't start running until she was in her fifties. I'd like to be bouncy and energetic like she is as I get older, able to sit cross-legged on the floor and get up and down with ease. Can't see myself training for hours on end, but it does feel good to run down suburban streets in summer, with linden trees smelling heavenly and sprinklers watering the green hostas that anchor walkways and flower beds.

Running is doing something that is continuous with other versions of myself--the young woman who started running in graduate school and kept it up, more or less, until the first trimester of her first pregnancy (that nauseous, exhausted couple of months when you're barely pregnant but thoroughly miserable). I ran for a while when my youngest child went off to preschool--put him on the bus and headed down the street in my running shoes and baggy t-shirt. I walked last year, furiously some days, with head phones and music blocking out the loops of complaints and aggravation that were playing in my brain. When I was younger I reminded myself that I would always feel better after a run, even if I didn't feel like running. Now when I walk or walk-and-run on stressed-out days I tell myself that I can stay mad, if I want, and I might not feel better after a workout, but I won't feel worse, and at least my exercise is done.

Week One, Week Two, Week Three. A day of running, a day off. A decade of running, two decades of child-rearing. A year of running, a long time without it. Days accumulate, things change. I have grown up, survived, gained some intuition, and what's more, learned to trust it. But in that pile of accumulated days, there are aches and pains, wishes and unresolved hurts. I worry about the repair process.

When I was young I assumed things would work out one day for the best, and if even if I knew that "happily every after" was a fairy tale, I still assumed that this was where I was headed, where I wanted to be. Safe and okay. But now I know this cannot be taken for granted.

Someone told me recently that if I was going to worry I should smile while I worry. It was advice for singing, which I'm doing with care and attention to technique these days, trying to fix habits accumulated over a lifetime. Why I worry so much when I sing is a long story, suitable for a therapist's couch, but it is a continuous piece with my younger self, with whom, curiously, I seem to be spending the summer.

While I was out tonight doing my alternating minutes of running and walking, I realized that I know of three men in their fifties who have died suddenly in the last couple weeks: a relative of a friend, a cousin of my cousins, the son and brother of dear people I've known a long time. Strokes, cardiac arrest, that sort of thing. There are superstitions about deaths coming in threes, so there it is: three deaths, three men allotted less than the biblical three-score and ten.

Those seventy or eighty years or more of a lifespan ought to have an arc to them, a storyline, a plot, or a coda that explains it all and brings healing at the end. These human years are a quick time gone by, and strictly linear. Time in other dimensions, in the cosmos, in quantum mechanics, may fold back on itself and repair the past as it's lived. I am not wired to experience this, though if this is how the mind of God works, perhaps I can hope that continuous repair, back and forth in time, is God's salvation at work in me.

Meanwhile I live one day after another, concentrating on the smiling.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

That second cup

My son took the second mug of coffee in the pot, on his way out the door to work. Not a problem. I'll pretty much give anything I've got to one of my kids.

But an hour later, I'm going to the kitchen to make that second cup for myself. Be right back.

While I was in the kitchen, I took my allergy medicine, which I keep next to the coffee maker, because making coffee is pretty much the one thing I can count on myself to do every day. So if the Zyrtec is right there, I'll probably remember to swallow some. Remember the pills and I can forget about the symptoms. (Forget the pills and a day or two later I notice.)

I usually swallow a calcium and vitamin D supplement along with the allergy pill, but I read in the paper this morning that this doesn't actually prevent bone loss and it ups the risk of kidney stones. I had a kidney stone once. It hurt. I'm giving up on the calcium.

There are other things I should give up in the morning. Like reading the paper--more precisely, sitting down at the computer to read the paper online. It takes time and fritters away my early-morning ability to focus on creative tasks. What do I get out of it? A sense of connection to the larger world. Often, some interesting ideas--but when I have to get on to the work of the day I don't have time left to work on those ideas.

This begs the question--does it matter if I do think about big ideas, or the news of the day, or what's going in Washington or the Eurozone, the Mideast or Appalachia? I have no effect on these things, none whatsoever. Wouldn't my time be better spent lining up my late-afternoon errands, organizing my work projects and deciding what's for supper? Should I even be reading a blog about somebody else's garden in Ohio when there are weeds in my own backyard? Global, schmobal.

That second cup of coffee--is that the one that calls me back from the world of news and ideas into restless action? I'm nearing the bottom of the cup and starting to feel it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


I've been reading books lately like I'm at Old Country Buffet--some of this, some of that, finish this, but leave that. Many flavors and textures piled together on the plate. There's no savoring of one well-made dish. When the plate is empty, or even when one corner of the plate is empty, I go back for more.

I've ripped through a couple novels--Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" and Rachel Kushner's "Telex from Cuba." Franzen's book has strong bones and muscular writing. He writes with firm energy, like a kid with an active mind whose math notes are surrounded by drawings of supermen, drawings that push the pencil deeply into the paper. There's a triangle in "Freedom," and while it's the woman's actions that upset the men's lives, the men seem to have more volition than the woman. She loves, not enough or too much, because of her need. They love (and consumate that love) as an expression of their individuality. Or so it could be argued, I guess.

"Telex from Cuba" tells of expatriates in Cuba during Castro's Communist revolution. They are recognizable people--teens, parents, bosses and workers--in an exotic situation. There are non-American characters as well, including Battista (the dictator overthrown by Fidel) and an international weapons dealer. They're all scraping after power and the security they want from that power. Almost nobody gets the life they expect.

Reading category number two is Alzheimer's memoirs. This is a depressing genre, why go there? I'm traveling deliberately, kind of a slow sight-seeing trip. I've written a few chapters of my own in this category that I"m not sure what to do with. I've got three books going. The first, "Keeper: One House, Three Generations, and a Journey into Alzheimer's," by Andrea Gillies. She and her husband thought that the caregiving solution to the challenge presented by his demented mother and chair-bound elderly father was to buy a large house in rural Scotland for three generations to share--running a B&B on the side, to help pay the mortgage. It doesn't turn out well. "Nancy," the mother-in-law, is constantly struggling against her disease, her environment and her caregivers, and they struggle back. Everyone's expectations seem too high. Scene after scene moves toward the point where a frustrated caregiver explains things to Nancy, which is, of course, pointless.

I've also got "Iris and Her Friends," a memoir by John Bayley, husband of novelist Iris Murdoch, an Alzheimer's sufferer (as the English would say, instead of "victim"). There's surrender in this book, to sadness and to joy; Bayley is a devoted spouse, who has always lived the life of the mind. It's easier for him, because he is not trying to be a multi-tasking middle-age Wonder Woman. The third book is "Alzheimer's from the Inside Out," a collection of essays from a psychologist with early onset AD, sharing his experience of his mind's deterioration.

All three books contain ruminations on what is mind and what is memory and who are we with these things and who are we without them. It's an inevitable question. I can still invoke it just by turning my head to the right and imagining Lon, my demented husband, beside me. Which Lon fills my memory? The one I met and romanced and married, had children with? The one who took me to the movies, who ate my cooking, who made the house boom with colorful conversation? Or the silent angry man, with the taut, skinny arms who was haunted by things we couldn't see, who kicked the dog and threatened the children with wordless clenched fists?

It was an exotic situation. Freedom? Choices? Struggle, or surrender? There are many things contained within one person, one character. What holds them together?