Around the World in 24 Hours

Milwaukee can be a rather uninspiring place in the dead of winter. Not that the light, feathery, cotton candy snow that piled up overnight wasn’t beautiful. As we walked to the breakfast cafe to meet Steve’s mother, we came up with an alphabetical list of adjectives for this particular day’s precipitation. I don’t want to complain about the temperature hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit, although it is a favorite local custom. There are much better ways to engage the imagination, and I live in a house which reminds me of this every day.

 Scholar & Poet Books is the name of our other roommate. The drafty, old duplex we share rises over 4 levels: basement, first floor, second floor, and attic. She occupies every level and every staircase. She completely fills “my” closet while some of my clothes have languished in suitcases under the bed for 3 years. I am learning to appreciate her presence instead of begrudging her seeming dominance. In fact, I think I am coming around to choosing her company.

Scholar and Poet I

 After Sunday breakfast with Mom, we returned to her, eager to taste her bounty. Samplings for the day included Irish, French, Argentine, Tibetan and Yiddish. She expands our consciousness, delights our senses and supports our livelihood and our dreams. Her body is an amalgam of tens of thousands of books and CDs with a few hundred other artifacts thrown in. She is library, concert hall and museum. She is introvert heaven.

 We started by reading aloud a poem by W. B. Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”, the howling North Atlantic wind of the Irish verses being matched by the Wisconsin bluster that rattled our windows. After delving a bit into Yeats’ biography, Steve then began his daily business of listing our friend’s appendages for sale while I went downstairs to do the dishes and make bread. After lunch, while the loaves baked, we began to discuss our plans to travel to Tibet. Internet research prompted a search through our stacks to find more information on that side of the planet. Steve came down with 6 books of varying relevance. When the bread was safely out of the oven, we went upstairs to watch a DVD, Manon of the Spring, having watched Jean de Florette just weeks before. This emotional tale of French village life transported us visually and linguistically to another world in a simpler century. I tried, unsuccessfully, to pick out the movie’s musical theme on my harmonica before returning to the kitchen to make dinner.

 When we’d finished our meal and our wine, we retired to the bedroom to peruse the wall of jewel cases. We settled on a CD of Argentinian folk songs and dances by Suni Paz. In contrast to the Irish ballads we lit upon at first, these undulating rhythms drew us deeper into the sultry passions beneath our awakened senses…

 Fueled by a solid Monday morning breakfast, we dove into the business of packaging our sales, accompanied by Moishe Oysher singing Yiddish, bluesy, vaudeville, Hollywood-like tunes. I have no idea what they were about, but his passages of improvised “scatting” made me think of Tevye stomping and shaking around in his barn, pouring out his desires to be a rich man. One of the books we packaged was sent to a Jewish community center in New York; it was a children’s book called Klutzy Boy. It made me laugh.

 The anthem of my Alma Mater, Scripps College, starts: “Strong in the strength of all, venturing together, searching, exploring the life of the mind…” In the midst of a Milwaukee winter, this is the antidote to cabin fever. I’m grateful to be shacking up with Scholar & Poet Books.

(author’s note: to browse our inventory listed on A.B.E. Books, click HERE. To visit our eBay Store, click HERE.)

© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Advent Day #15 – Music

The sun is rising in the east, lighting the low clouds with a brilliant pink-orange glow and silhouetting a raven in the large oak next door.  We awake this Sunday morning in a gloriously celebratory mood.  This is the only day in the week that Steve doesn’t wake at O dark 30 to get out the door to work.  He goes to his 7-foot stacks of CDs (did I tell you he collects and sells CDs as well as books?) and selects a favorite.  The timpani boom out the announcement of Christmas. Boom-bo-bo-bo-bo-boom Boom!  Bach’s Christmas Cantata is a great, rousing morning piece.  Now we are at the Grand Canyon, listening to the bird flutes and the donkey hee-haws of Grofe (accent on the ‘e’).  Music is a truly wonderful gift that we enjoy every day.

I’ve Got Music

How to unwrap this truly spectacular gift?  It pulsates and glows and pulls you in, as your heart resonates and your soul throbs.  Music received and believed regenerates like faith.  I cannot think that it is merely a human construct, yet I cannot prove the music of the heavenly spheres.  Is it invented?  Is it natural?  Is it free?  Perhaps it is everything.

All deep things are song.  It seems somehow the very central essence of us, song; as if all the rest were but wrappages and hulls!  ~Thomas Carlyle

Without music life would be a mistake.  ~Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.  ~Ludwig van Beethoven

My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us; the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.  ~Edward Elgar

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.  ~Victor Hugo

Is there a culture on earth without music?  Rhythm: sound and silence are as basic as biology.  Heartbeat, breath.  Melody is anything with a voice.  Do animals make music?  Do plants?  Does the earth itself sing?  Sound waves flood space.  Is that music?

Does music have an important part in your life, in your living?

Steve has a mental invention: “the sound pack”.  He imagines carrying around a device that would provide a soundtrack to your life as you live it, matching music to your moods and experiences.  It differs from an iPod in that it is all original music.  Of course, he hasn’t actually built a prototype. I have never gotten into the habit of wearing ear buds and listening to music constantly.  My arachnoid cyst would probably explode if I did.  It’s more comfortable for me to take my music in without other distractions, especially as the white noise in my head increases.  Imagine that you lived 200 years ago, before recorded sound.  What place would music have in your life then?

I sing to myself when I drive, making up lines and verses as I go along, like the Spirituals of the south, especially if I’m anxious.  Driving up to Steve’s house from Illinois, I’d get off the Interstate at Swan Blvd and hum, “Here I am on a street like a long-necked bird…”, the murmur of a bluesy minor key calming my nerves.  I would sing to my little brother on the drive home from the beach when he was a boy.  He’d be asleep by the time we reached the driveway, damp head on my shoulder.   I loved singing to him.  When he was an infant, I would reach into his crib and lift his sleeping body so that I could take him to the rocking chair and sing him back to sleep again.

Of course, I sang to my own children.  And they sang back.  Harmony is an amazing satisfaction.  I am looking forward to my kids visiting me on Christmas Eve.  I’m hoping we can take a stroll around the neighborhood and trot out some of our favorite carols….and maybe some Beetles.   Have you ever heard people singing in the streets?  Do you look up in delight?  Wonder why they seem so happy?  I do.

One morning, I awoke to the sound of my sweetheart singing beneath my window.  “Michelle, ma belle, Sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble….”  Instead of the melody, though, it was the baritone part of a barbershop arrangement.  Didn’t matter.  It was in French and warmed by a May breeze.  I opened my window and drank it in.

I have not experienced oneness with an instrument except my own voice.  I am truly impoverished by that fact, I think.  I did buy a harmonica this year with high hopes, but I am just too impatient.   My mother-in-law was a concert pianist.  My mother is an accomplished accompanist as well.  I wish that I had been more disciplined and practiced the piano more.  I wish that I had spent more time with the guitar, too.  I suppose having a good voice tempts you to be lazy in that way.  If Jascha Heifetz could sing, would he have been the violinist that he was?

What if we required our politicians to be experienced ensemble musicians?  Would they come to office with a better understanding of unity, of teamwork, of collaborative leadership?  Imagine a string quartet of President, Vice-President, Speaker of the House, and Senate Majority Leader practicing long hours together on an Adagio by Schubert.  Perhaps the entire country would be in better shape.

 

Advent Day #10 – Hearing

And what’s behind door #10 on the Advent calendar? 

Do You Hear What I Hear?

“A song, a song, high above the trees with a voice as big as the sea, with a voice as big as the sea.”

As a little girl in chorus, I loved that Christmas piece.  There was something majestic and homey about the conversation passing from the night wind to the mighty king.  I liked the imagery of the sky and the little lamb and the star with a tail as big as a kite.  I sang it with all the passion I could muster at the age of 9.

Today’s gift on the parade of days in December is hearing.  Sound.  What are your favorite sound memories?  What’s the first thing you enjoy hearing in the morning?  How do sounds change your mood?

Today I woke up to the sound of chickadees outside my window.  The sun was shining through the frost making rainbow diamonds of pink and green.  I tried to take a picture of it, but the colors didn’t come out.  I realized that even when I put my glasses on, the prism effect disappeared.  I Googled “frost” images, and none of them have the colors that I can see with my naked eye.  I wonder if the lens thing destroys the refraction?  Okay, that’s a sight digression.  Sight was yesterday.  Today, I want to concentrate on sound.

It’s funny how you can be totally familiar with a sound and not even know that it’s in your repertoire.  For instance, I can sit upstairs in bed while Steve goes down to the kitchen to make a snack, and I can figure out exactly what he’s fixing, just by listening.  My kids used to hate this skill.  “How did you know that I was doing that?”  Sneaking snacks, tiptoeing out the front door, playing music on your headphones when you should be sleeping, they all have a particular set of sounds.  Even silence.  Silence to a mother with toddlers communicates alarm louder than a French siren.

Favorite sounds from childhood: the ice cream truck (why do they always play The Entertainer by Scott Joplin?) is a cliche.  I’ve got one: the sound of my mother calling us in for dinner with an alto yodel at a major third interval.  I was the most embarrassed kid on the block.  Couldn’t we have had a bell or a triangle or something that wasn’t her voice?  Okay, in all fairness, the sound of her singing Brahms lullaby to me at night made up for that.  “Lullaby and goodnight, with roses bedight (archaic form of ‘bedecked’, I suppose), with lilies o’er spread is baby’s wee bed.  Lay thee down now and sleep, may thy slumber be deep; lay thee down now and rest, may thy slumber be blessed.”  Or her other standard: “Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh, shadows of the evening steal across the sky.  Jesus gives the weary calm and sweet repose, with his tend’rest blessings may thine eyelids close.”  “Night-night, d’good girl”, she would always say, kiss me on the forehead and tuck me in before tiptoeing out of the room.

Music; have I had music in my life!  I am a walking encyclopedia of silly camp songs that crop up at the most mundane cue.  I am still learning to be as familiar with “serious music”.  Even after attaining a BA in music, I have to say that I feel I know very little about classical instrumental music.  This is where Steve is educating me.  He began collecting albums as a teenager and can cite off the top of his head how many symphonies, concertos, operas and other works were composed by a plethora of artists.  As a voice performance major, I know more about songs.  I even make orchestral works into songs, mnemonic devises to help me remember the composer.  “Sergei Prokofiev could barely read the treble clef until he was past 47″ sung to Peter’s theme from Peter & the Wolf, for instance.   (I got that from a book, actually.  I didn’t make it up.  But you get the idea.)

White noise.  There’s a scene in Tarkovsky’s film “Solaris” where they tape strips of paper over the air vents of their space station to simulate the sound of rustling leaves.  Noise that makes you feel at home.  The elevated train down the block.  Sirens.  Owls.  Coyotes.  The dishwasher.  I have my own white noise going constantly in my head.  I’ve had it since 2005.  It’s called an arachnoid cyst.  So I am a bit hard of hearing, but not so’s you’d notice, really.  Except when Steve mumbles something in his low register.  “Did I fake a rainbow trout? No?  Oh, ‘did I take the garbage out’!”  I can live with it.

My favorite sounds, off the top of my head:  Susan’s voice saying, “Hiiii, Maamaa!” on the other end of the phone.  The whistle of a cardinal.  A barbershop quartet.  “Unforgettable” crooned by Emily.  Josh and Becca laughing.  The pop of a cork from a bottle.  Coyotes and hoot owls and wind.  Red-winged blackbirds.  The loon at Woodbury Lake.  My mother’s voice.  Church bells.  The bell of mindfulness.  Frogs: spring peepers to be exact.  I hear them every year.  They’re deafening, practically, but I can never SEE one!  It’s a taunt.  One day, I’ll get lucky.

What is music to your ears?  Tomorrow, we’re off to the Lyric again for Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”.  That’ll be some music.  Then we’re having dinner with Emily at an Algerian crepe restaurant.  Can you guess what the gift will be for that day?

Advent Day #7 – Memory

One of the most fascinating gifts of the human brain is Memory.  On my Advent countdown, this is something to open with caution.  “When faced with his past, the strongest man cries.” (from a Dan Fogelberg song)  “Memory is like the sweetest pain…” (from a James Taylor song)  The question I must ask myself when I am drawn to memory is, “Is this useful?”  I could get sucked into the morose for hours, wallowing in widowhood, motherhood, womanhood, childhood.  What would I learn?  If it brings appreciation or perspective, very well.  If it gets me ‘stuck’, then it’s not so good.  Here’s my post from two years ago:

Christmas 1982

Ever had a piece of music bring up a memory, a time and place from the past, with such clarity that you felt you were actually there?  Last night it happened.  I came home from my Memoirs class, having read my essay aloud with such a rush of nervous adrenaline that my heart was still pounding.  I decided to have  a glass of Chardonnay and listen to some of Steve’s recently acquired CDs with him.  So, I was relaxing and in “memory mode” when he put on a CD of the Tallis Scholars singing a mass by John Taverner, written around the turn of the century – the 16th century.   Oh, the flood of my heart!

I was 20 years old.  Jim and I had become engaged on my birthday over the summer.  I went back down to So. Cal. to school, to continue with my bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance.  Jim and my mother were in a Bay Area singing group together, called Renascense (or some archaic spelling pronounced ren-NAY-sense).  I came home for Christmas and was invited to one of their concerts.  I close my eyes and picture them:  Jim in his black tuxedo, ginger mustache,  the smatterings of a beard he’s grown for Rigoletto.  He is 22, teddy bear-like with twinkling blue eyes, blonde hair and a killer Italian grin.  But while he’s singing, he is an angel, mouth perfectly forming straight vowels, eyebrows imploring heaven.  He is a tenor.  His voice melts butter.   My mother is dressed in a mail order catalog nightgown, polyester, rust-colored, that has been trimmed with gold & black cord around the waist and across her bosom in an X.  Only women who have sung in choirs can imagine how absolutely ludicrous these outfits can be.  No woman looks good in a choir uniform, let alone one that has been made to look “period” on the cheap.  It is ridiculously embarrassing, but I forgive her.  She sings alto in a hooty voice that blends well.  Her quality is not stellar, but her musicianship is indispensable.

I have been so homesick away from school.  I have been staring at my diamond ring, counting the days until break.  I sit in the concert hall and look at these two people whom I love more than any others on the face of the earth, and I am so proud of them.  I’m proud of their dedication to music and their fond relationship to each other.  I admire them completely, and I am jealous.  I want to be with them; I want to be them.  I want to feel the music in my breast float to the clerestory of the church and entwine in that beautiful polyphony.  I ache for this memory.  And then the tenor line soars above the rest, and it is Jim himself, singing to me.  The recording is perfection.  I can tell that it isn’t Jim, but there are moments when it definitely could be.  My will takes over and I make it him, in my mind.   I am there, in that sanctuary, and Jim is singing to me, alive, young, vibrant with love and mystery and warmth.

Jim before his Carnegie performance – 2002

Music folds time in patterns that defy chronology.  I sail far away on its transcendent waves.  It is a grace to travel toward those we love without limits.

Reckoning Love

“What’s in a love letter, anyway?” he asked. 

I was in a mood.  A little pouty and weepy, my inner 4-year-old whining, “I just don’t feel special!”  God, why does this keep happening every month?  It’s so ridiculous.   Okay, rather than stuff it and wait for it to go away, I will wrap that little girl in my own arms and listen to her.  She wants to feel loved.  She doubts her self-worth every once in  awhile and wants someone to show a preference for her and please her.  “Little One, you are precious,” I tell her.  I am taking responsibility for caring for this vulnerable one.  Me.  Passing that burden on to anyone else is manipulative and fosters a kind of co-dependency.  I don’t want that any more.  Oh, but I used to rely on it pretty routinely.  I had a husband who, for 24 years, lavished me with gifts and compliments and love letters.   I have been with Steve now for 4 years.  He has never even bought me a greeting card.  I do not want him to be other than he is, and I believe he loves me profoundly.  So, what is the love letter game about?  “What’s in a love letter, anyway?” Steve asked.

Six parts flattery to one part youth…or is that a martini?  So I began to make a list of the elements of a love letter,  Cat Stevens’ song “Two Fine People” running through my brain.  In one column, I put the parts that I know Steve would never embrace.  In the other column, I put the bits that I think he does communicate, albeit in person and not in writing.  The list began to resemble another amusing song: “Title of the Song” (by DaVinci’s Notebook), which you really must click on and listen to if you never have before.      …Now, wasn’t that fun?

So I showed Steve the little orange Post-It note that carried this weighty list.  On the left, I’d written “flattery; promises: to rescue, for future, to provide; declaration of desire”.  On the right I’d written “honesty, appreciation, gratitude, description of how I love”.  I told him that his description of how he loves is unique and authentic to him and doesn’t resemble Cat Stevens’ (“…though Time may fade and mountains turn to sand…’til the very same come back to the land”).  He walked to one of his bookshelves and took down his “Bible”, a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  “How’s this for a love letter?”  he asked and read from “Song of Myself”:

The smoke of my own breath;
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine;
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs;
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore, and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn;
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice, words loos’d to the eddies of the wind;
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms;
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag;
The delight alone, or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides;
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems;
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun—(there are millions of suns left;)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me:
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.

The little girl opens her wet eyes and looks wide.  Wondering, feeling alive, an equal to the sun and the trees and the birds in the sky and every playmate in the Universe.  Is this not Love, this embrace?  I reckon that it is. 

075

Mensch sighting!

In my post a few days ago, (Oh!  The Humanity!) I sent out a plea for examples of admirable human beings as an antidote to the kind of internet sensations who fail to inspire and instead make me nauseated.   You know what I’m talking about, right?  The rampant  dumbing-down of our species, “urgent” stories of greed and fear and violence and stupidity and pettiness and the like are probably a dangerous toxin to our culture.  Where are the role models who will help us do better and why aren’t we using our advanced media to promote them more often?  For every “Who Wore It Better?”, we could be viewing 5 “Who Lived It Better?” stories.  Why not?

I have enjoyed a morning at work in the kitchen and with the book business while listening to the music of my Mensch of the Day.  This is an artist who has inspired me since my pre-adolescent days, and I’ve only just discovered this live recording from 2 years before his death.  He is the recipient of the 1993 Albert Schweitzer Music Award and the only non-classical musician to be so distinguished.  His humanitarian efforts supported the National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth, The Cousteau Society, and the Windstar Foundation.  The CD I have was a concert for The Wildlife Conservation Society’s 100th anniversary.  Ladies and gentleman…….John Denver: a singer and songwriter whose lyrics ring with authenticity and passion, whose music spans genres from country to pop to blues to rock, and whose commitment to peace and preservation permeated his career.  As a cultural ambassador for the U. S., he visited China, Viet Nam and the Soviet Union and recorded a duet with a Soviet artist, becoming the first American to do so.  In my mind, he follows in the footsteps of another hero of mine, Pete Seeger, who, at 93, is still active in the same kind of musical ambassadorship that promotes cultural tolerance and environmental responsibility.  I did have the privilege of hearing him give a concert for children when I was in my single digits. 

Who will carry the torch when he passes away?

To read more about the Schweitzer Award, see http://www.anchor-international.org/07.html.  For more about John Denver’s career, see http://learningtogive.org/papers/paper349.html.  For a good listen, go to “You Say the Battle Is Over”.

 

Dance like it’s the last night of the world

A song from “Miss Saigon” is running through my head… ‘a song, played on a solo saxophone…so hold me tight and dance like it’s the last night of the world’.  Not that I seriously think the world will end tomorrow.  Aside from the darkness and the rain (instead of snow) here in Milwaukee, all seems fairly normal. 

But it raises a good question.  What would you do on the last night of the world?  What would you want to be doing any or every night of the world? 

My husband sang that song from Miss Saigon on a recital one February, a snowy scene visible through the plate glass window behind him.  The tune was a tad high for him; his sweet tenor voice seemed a little strained.  He lived only another 7 years after that day. 

I would want to dance with him and Steve and my children and my mother, to hold them tight and look into their eyes until there was nothing else to see. 

scan0037

Two-Minute Cosmic Worship Break

My mother serendipitously re-sent me a video that I had been searching for amongst my 4,000 saved e-mails.  I am in need of this video on a regular basis, and once you see it, you’ll know why.  I think I may have posted it before, but like looking up to see the horizon, it must be done often to stay sane.  Enjoy, re-blog, share…repeat.  (Not like shampoo instructions, which are entirely bogus.  Who lathers twice in one shower?)

I can’t seem to get the screen posted right here, so click this link until I figure it out.

Well, okay, it seems that WordPress requires a space upgrade to get the screen to show.  Please click the link, though.  I promise your two minutes will be rewarded!

 

Peaceful Sunday

Placido Domingo.  Quiet, tranquil Sunday.  Ah, me.

Last night, we saw our first Lyric Opera of Chicago performance of the season: Simon Boccanegra by Verdi.  An appropriate story for an election month, dramatic and political.  Two opera megastars were featured in the leading roles: Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto.  The story and the music are captivating.  (This performance was rather a disappointment, stiff and unimaginative.  I much prefer the La Scala production starring Placido Domingo in the title role, even if his voice is not as resonant as a baritone.) The point is that Simon Boccanegra is a man who spends his life and loses his life in the pursuit of peace.  The Italian political scene is characterized by vendetta, family feuds, curses, treason, and rebellion and peopled with villains.  The story shows, though, that everyone is a villain.  We all harm each other in one way or another.  Forgiveness and reconciliation is the only way to make a difference.  How many people must the Doge pardon by the end of Act III in order to die peacefully in his daughter’s arms?

                                                                                       

This morning, I logged on to the internet and began a conversation with my blogger friend, Helen, of 1500 Saturdays.  Her post was about brutal killings in Nigeria, titled “How did humanity get so lost?”.  How do we respond to suffering, to the villainy that surrounds each of us?  Which stories do we listen to; which do we tell?  How do we make a peaceful Sunday in our world?  Please click here to read her post, the links, the comments and spend some time considering your own response.  “May all beings be happy; may all beings be free from suffering.”

 

 

Deflating *POP* Culture

How does anyone keep up with Pop Culture?  I used to watch the Olympics; now I don’t have a TV, so I’m not even going to attempt to know who is making the sports news.  I’m also not attempting to keep up with movies and music.  Or social networking: no Facebook or Twitter for me. 

Steve just asked me, “How much calmer would you be if you played in a string quartet every day?”  Right now we’re listening to Haydn.  I proposed an idea a few months ago that I thought would contribute greatly to creating political harmony.  I think every member of the President’s cabinet as well as all the representatives in the House and in the Senate should learn to play in chamber ensembles together.  Think of how good they would become at listening to each other!

So now I’m going to shut down the laptop and resist the “tyranny of the urgent”.  I will not learn one weird trick to reduce belly fat or make a chocolate cake in one bowl or find out which celebrity wore the dress better.  It’s not important, and it’s not worth my attention.  Steve and Haydn are.  ‘Night!