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 #14 – Time

It’s About Time

Marching on in the parade of days is today’s icon: time.  Ever seen George Carlin’s stand-up routine “Does the time bother you?” from 1978?  He goes into his typical absurdity rant about time, and as usual he asks a pertinent question in an impertinent manner.  We get obsessed with time, we humans.  It’s a construct we invented to cause ourselves anxiety, it would seem.  Animals have no sense of time.  They have seasonal behavior, but they’re not checking their calendars or pocket watches to know when to do something.  We have this ability to conceptualize past, present, and future and make decisions about what to do when.  What are we doing with this ability?  How are we spending our time?

Coincidentally, Steve woke this morning to say that he had been dreaming that we were having a fight.  “About what?” I asked.  “Small fires,” he replied.  To Steve, “small fires” are the things that take up our time or distract us from the important things in life.  We have spent a lot of time discussing what we consider valuable and how we want to use the time we have.  I consider it a big part of a working relationship to have those conversations that clarify how you will spend time.  The trick is to have them in a way that doesn’t waste time.  “Where are we going to spend Christmas Eve?” could cause you to fall into a vortex of possibilities and consequences.  “What do I want to be doing at this time?” is a bit more specific.

For what do I make time?  On what am I willing to spend a lot of time?   When you ask yourself these questions, does a sense of obligation begin to settle on you?  Are there a lot of things you spend time on because you feel you have to, even though you don’t want to?  How much of that have you accepted unwillingly because it’s easier than making changes?

Years ago, I went to a workshop that focused on a book called “Unplug the Christmas Machine”.  My church sponsored this event because there were a lot of women in that affluent community that took on an incredible burden of expectations and effort around the holiday.   I would often be asked, “So, have you got everything ready for Christmas?”  This was a conversation opener that often segued into a litany of tasks and obligations that they hadn’t completed and a lament of how stressed they were and how little time there was.  It was a victim’s complaint.  It’s taken me years to realize that victimization is often a choice.  There is a way to live that includes deciding what you will and will not spend your life’s time doing.

Some things I will not spend time doing: watching TV.  (I don’t own one, I don’t want one.  I have plenty of things to look at and listen to that entertain me.)  Networking on Facebook.  (I already have e-mail and a blog, so this seems completely superfluous.  Apparently, I am now in the minority in this country.  Hurrah!)  Working in a cubicle 8 hours a day.  (Been there, done that, then lived without any employment for 11 months so far.  I prefer being unemployed.) Showering and putting on make-up every day.  (I shower a few times a week.  I wear make-up to the opera.  I still feel hygienic and pretty.)

I might spend time taking a TV apart. The insides are cool!

Some things I will spend time doing:  cooking and dining.  (The worst part about feeding a family of 6 when everyone is employed or a student full time is that no one has time to enjoy this necessary and basic part of being human.)  Washing dishes by hand.  (It’s reminds me of camping.)  Doing laundry.  (Going to the laundromat for 2 hours every 3 weeks actually takes less time than owning the machines and doing a load whenever I felt like it.)  Sleeping. (I have always been a napper and a morning person.  I go to bed by 10pm most nights.  Did that even in college.)

What I really want to spend time doing: being outside, hiking, camping, traveling.  Reading books and listening to music.  Writing.  Being aware.  Being present, especially when I’m face to face with another living being.  Learning and loving and being happy.

We don’t any of us know how much time we will have to be alive.  We all have the responsibility and the opportunity to decide how we will live in whatever time we have.  That’s an awesome gift.  Jim’s sister quoted Abe Lincoln at the memorial service we held: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years.”  So maybe there’s no such thing as ‘time’, only ‘life’.

Advent Day #12 – Taste

Today’s Advent door opens up a world of heaven.  Taste is something that I appreciate with my whole being, like a baby wriggling in delight.  I baked bread twice this week, and made turkey soup and deep dish pizza from scratch.  I am looking for Whole Foods markets within driving distance so that I can taste their Truffle Gouda one more time.  I get really excited about food!  My Christmas magic is gradually boiling down to simply cooking and eating good food.  I’m not decorating or exchanging gifts or going to church or to parties, but I am going to enjoy being busy in my home making tasty things for people I love.  

You’ve Got Taste

And what a gift it is!  Today is the 12th day of appreciating things we often take for granted, and our sense of TASTE is on the docket.  If you can, grab something to snack on while you read.  You might suddenly feel hungry.

Taste and smell go hand in hand, but there are foods that smell better than they taste.  Movie popcorn for instance.  Vanilla extract.  Coffee.  Lavender.  (Steve and I debate whether this can really be a food.  I say it is, and lavender/lemon cookies are delicious.  He thinks they taste like old lady soap.)   Cinnabon rolls.  McDonald’s fries.  Feel free to add from your list.

Last night, Steve & Emily & I ate at an Algerian crepe restaurant.  Oh. My. Goodness.  Flavors exploding all over the place.  Fresh mint tea with honey, served in tiny glass mugs.  Lamb stew with chick peas.  (Lamb fat is a flavor that will always be a comfort from my past.  It is distinct from all other meat flavors and tends to polarize people into two camps.  I’m definitely in the ‘thumbs up’ camp.)  Roast garlic, brie and escargot. (Yes, together in a crepe.  Tres decadent.)  Sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, caramelized onions, olive tapanade, pomegranate seeds.   And strong coffee, poured from a copper pot with a long handle into a demitasse cup that made me think of the film “Notorious” (Alfred Hitchcock).  After sipping my cupful, I found a substance at the bottom that I could have used to make adobe.  It smelled of allspice, I think.

 

Fried Chicken picnic at Ravinia on my birthday

Taste and texture are also inseparable experiences.  “Mouth feel” seems a totally inelegant way to communicate the pleasure, but it seems to be the term of choice.  Creamy, crunchy, grainy, watery, smooth.  I’m not sure how to characterize ‘fiery’ spice.  Is that a taste or a texture or a mouth feel or a chemical reaction?  “Tastes like burning!” as Ralph says on The Simpsons.  In the documentary “El Bulli” (about the famously avant garde restaurant in Spain), they experimented with serving a cocktail that was simply water with a little hazelnut oil floating on top.  It was all about feeling the smoothness of the oil on your upper lip while the clear, cold water glided below it into your mouth.   Ah, concentrating on a singular sensation.  How wondrous!  How hedonistic!  How delightful!  Why not?  “I’ll have what she’s having!” the old lady says, pointing to Harry & Sally’s table.  Have you ever had a taste experience that bordered on climactic?  I have.  I savor them.  Here’s one that pops in mind: my sister’s homemade Mexican chocolate ice cream.  The first time I ate it, I almost passed out.  Chocolate ice cream has never meant the same thing to me since.   Hungarian fry bread rubbed with a garlic clove at Paprikas Fono in San Francisco.  I was pregnant for the first time and STARVING.  Seriously, I hadn’t been able to keep food down and I was depressed.  I craved that bread with goulash for nine months.

I could probably go on forever, but I won’t.  I am so appreciative of my taste buds and the way they enhance my life every day.  I did know a guy who’d suffered brain damage from 2 car accidents and couldn’t smell or taste much.  I feel much compassion for his predicament.  Not that it is insurmountable, but I’m happy to be able to enjoy the sensations I have.   Thank you, Universe.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Beyond

Do you have a photo which invites the viewer to look beyond? Are there hidden depths in the background? Is the focal point just a framing for the rest of the picture? If it’s not clear why we should look beyond, tell us! Lead us through the story in your photo.

December 22, 2012,  just at dusk.  I am upstairs, in bed, cold, alone.  The world did not end, even though the sun is far away.  I feel disconnected from warmth.  I look out my window.  The neighbors advertise their jolly associations, but I do not belong to that club.  I look beyond…the sky is aflame, fire licks around the turquoise expanse of our atmosphere, the sun invites me to the outer edges of my vision.  There is the belonging, there the community, there the warmth.  Beyond.  The Universe is bigger than we imagine, and so are we.

Beyond

Beyond

Winter Holy Days

The world did not end yesterday. We are in a new cycle, heading closer to the Sun once more.

In years past, I would have spent this day at an Episcopal church, practicing with the choir, ushering my children through the Christmas pageant, greeting friends, and sneaking private moments in the candlelit darkness whispering devotions to Jesus and His Father. I would have sent more than a hundred letters through the mail to people far and wide with Scriptural messages and personal anecdotes illustrating the great salvific actions of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of the world. I would have asked for and promised prayers for numerous specific ailments and misfortunes. I would have spoken and written my heartfelt greetings using words like “blessings”, “gifts”, “faith”, “Emmanuel” and “Savior”.

 This year is different.

 I have no tree; I have no gifts wrapped and waiting; I have not sung a hymn or carol; I have no creche with empty manger awaiting the figure of a baby. I am the same person, though, with the same heart and breath and life blood. I use a different language now to try to express my deepest hope for peace and love to rule my life and the lives of those with whom I share this planet. I no longer profess to know a single Truth; I no longer presume to belong to a select portion of humanity; I no longer pretend that the concepts in my brain adequately reflect very much at all of reality.

 The posture I hope to adopt is openness. To face the world, the people in it, the marvel of change and mystery beyond my control, without hiding behind a mask or label or system, is a severe challenge. Had I not already buried a husband, fledged a flock of four, sold a home I had for 20 years, and left employment, I might not believe that I could live without clinging to conventional structure. I test my ability to be flexible, graceful, alive and aware every day. I hope to learn. I hope to grow. I hope to love the world (and myself) more genuinely as I do. This is my holy quest, and every day is a holiday. I celebrate the mingling of material and spirit, the incarnation of life in the substances of Earth. I will eat and drink and hug the bodies of people I love with festive joy as before – but differently.

 I include the entire Universe in this celebration. Yes, this means you! Peace to you all. Love, joy, humility and grace be with us all together….scillagrace.

front porch view

Weekly Photo Challenge: Happy

How ironic.  Today is definitely a day of SAD.  Last night, Steve & I had another epic “relationship discussion” that left me with swollen eyes.  I simply could not stop crying.  This morning, I got my period.  So typical.  This week’s pert little challenge topic just made me laugh.  What does it mean to be happy?  “May all beings be happy.”  Even with puffy bags and stinging eyes, I believe that I am happy.  Even clinging like a wreck for survival, I believe that I am happy.  Maybe that’s my grossest delusion.  I willfully believe that I am happy, no matter what. 

So what makes me happy?  Sunshine.  Family.  Christmas.  Here’s a photo of my kids on Christmas Day last year. 

How About Love?

My December countdown was completed yesterday.  I did not have a chance to post about the gift of love because I was living it.  My four children plus two “significant otters” came over for feasting and gifting and sleeping over.  All six of them ended up on the living room floor under mountains of sleeping bags and pillows and blankets, just like they used to when they were kids in a cousins pile.  Except now, they’re all adults — beautiful, interesting, caring, amazing adults who actually like each other.  And me.  How did I get to be so blessed?  This morning, I repaid them all for years of running in and jumping on my king-sized bed full of eager energy at an early hour on Christmas.  I dived onto their sleeping bags one at a time and gave them a great big hug and kiss.

We have lived through a lot together.  And we have lived through a lot separately.  Their lives matter to me in a way that I can barely describe.  Steve keeps challenging me to come up with ways to articulate what this is.  He has no children, and philosophically wonders why family is esteemed so highly.  “Oxytocin,” my daughter replied one day.  That explains one level of it, I suppose.  My biology has loaded me with hormones that make me love my kids.  My religion loaded me with beliefs that urged me to love my kids.  My experience of life has loaded me with the joys of loving my kids.  And my kids are just plain lovable.  I can agree with the reasoning behind his argument that all people are equally valuable, but I just can’t help feeling that my kids are more valuable…to me.  Yes, I’m playing favorites shamelessly without really understanding why.  Is it possible that evolution favors fiercely loving families?  Do they tend to be larger and survive better?   This might have negative effects on the planet in terms of population.  Would it be better for the world if we were less filial and more agape in our love?  Less sentimental and more altruistic?

Table fellowship

I don’t think that I am going to do justice to the topic of love in a scholarly way when I am full of mince pie, chocolate, and happy memories of the hours I just spent.  I am starting to sink into that melancholy that bubbles up when all of the guests have gone home and you ask yourself if you can be truly happy without that rush of energy and affection.  Of course, I am happy and even more peaceful living without all my children still under my roof.   I am in love with the world, in love with my partner, and in love with my children every day.  And it is marvelous.

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 - 2001?

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.

‘Tis A Season

When I was a kid, I always had an Advent calendar to count down the days from the first of December until Christmas Eve.  I had the same tradition with my own kids.  The secrets hidden behind each door were often Scripture verses.  It was important to tell the story of Jesus’ birth and make sure my kids knew that was “the reason for the season”.   There are other little treasures we could open each day, though.  When my son was taking German in high school, they sold Advent calendars with chocolates in them.   My father used to make us calendars out of magazine pictures and various old rotogravures with fortune cookie strips for the daily message.  We made our own calendars for each other, too, with simple crayon symbols behind the cut out doors.   The season has multiple images in my mind, and now I’m trying to figure out what it means to me at this point in my life.

I will always have respect for Jesus and the Christian story.  They were supremely important in my life for many years.  My spirituality was formed around them.  I think it is good to examine and re-examine beliefs, though, and strive for genuine and authentic expressions of experience.  My experience is expanding as I age, and I want to include more of those experiences in my belief system.  I want to include respect for other cultures, other religions, other parts of the planet and the universe.  I have a sister who is Sikh, a son who identifies with Buddhism and Native American spirit stories and a father who once taught science.  There is a lot going on all over the world in this season.  What do I want to acknowledge or celebrate?

My youngest daughter has always loved this season.  She used to go to the local Hallmark store in the middle of the summer to look at the Christmas village set up there.  What was that about?  Sparkly, pretty, cozy, homey, yummy expectations of treats?  Possibly.  Peace, love, joy?  Possibly.  Emotions?  Definitely.  Why not focus on pleasurable human senses and emotions?  Up in the northern hemisphere, we are spinning away from the sun and plunging into a cold, dark time.  Light becomes more precious, warmth becomes holy, food is life itself.  Why not celebrate that dependence?  We are sustained by the sun and the producers of this planet that make food from its energy.  Evergreen trees remind us of that.  Gifts remind us that we receive from the producers; we are consumers.  Gratitude is the attitude of the season.  Giving is the action that sustains us.

I sent a text message to each of my kids this morning saying that the gift for Day #1 this season is sunshine.  The sun is shining here, showering us with Vitamin D and all kinds of other goodies we need to be healthy and happy.   We are blessed, saved, sustained, given life in this universe by an amazing set of circumstances that we did not originate.   However you acknowledge that and whoever taught you to acknowledge that deserves attention.  May you be happy as you think and act in awareness of this.