Wednesday, December 23, 2009

22. A Funeral

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God...

The Book of Wisdom

In my work as a church musician I find that I prefer to play for funerals rather than weddings. Before I am accused of being macabre, let me explain. Many couples come to Bar Harbor for "destination weddings" and treat the music for the ceremony as peripheral to the bride's gown, the flowers, the dinner and all that. Often the entire wedding party just seems eager to get to the reception afterwards and I end up feeling like the "hired help."

A funeral or memorial service is a different story, however. Music here is traditionally used to set a somber, soothing tone, and also allows mourners to recall memories of the beloved. But most of all it is able to express bereavement beyond words.

Last week I played for the funeral of a 20 year-old boy from Mount Desert Island. Benjamin had been at a party, drinking, and wandered outside where he passed out and died from exposure. From reading his obituary I determined that life had already thrown this sweet young man some hard knocks and I was captivated by this line: He will be missed by his canine companions Zoey and Danny.

About half an hour before the service I walked into the church to organize my music. Already there were two pews filled with stone-faced young women, staring silently ahead, full of grief and disbelief. Gradually the church filled to capacity with friends and relatives of this lobstering family, who was now facing the unthinkable. I played Bach and Brahms. Despite knowing that these works were most likely unfamiliar to the listeners, I played them anyway, confident of their ability to offer solace and comfort.

Our rector Jonathan tackled the circumstances of Benjamin's death head-on. He did not mince words about dying and acknowledged the questioning of God that was surely going on among the congregation. Why did God not save Benjamin? How could God let this happen?

Most of us have wondered the same... I grew up with a theology which encouraged me to believe in an all-powerful, omniscient God. This God had his finger on the world and controlled everything. Tragic events were somehow "God's will" and good people were rewarded with loving families and material success. I started the painful, never-ending process of questioning these beliefs while in college. And I see now that one's theology is never concrete; it ebbs and flows, expands and contracts, with the experiences life provides us.

It seems to me that what I call God is with us, period. In the bountiful times, the ordinary times, the horrific times, the brokenhearted times. There is nothing or no one who can protect us from life or death. We live, with all that encompasses, and we die. In the tragedy of Benjamin's young death my faith allows me to be comforted in knowing that in that cold, dark woods he was not alone.

Monday, December 7, 2009

21. A Texas Thanksgiving

It's that time of year again- snow boots down from the attic, frost on my car windows in the morning, hardening ground underfoot, growing darkness on both ends of the day. The leaves are off the trees and now one can see the houses, barns and clutter that have been hidden all summer. All these signs point to the November-December holidays. As an exile in Maine I have always found Thanksgiving to be the most difficult holiday to be away from Texas. Not Christmas, you might ask? No, Christmas is mostly about work for me- there's no time to feel homesick.

It's turkey day that gets to me. After living in Maine for 16 years we have never established our own Thanksgiving tradition. Several times we have had friends over and often have been invited elsewhere. We've tried restaurants and have gone to Texas once or twice. But I just can't get away from the feeling that Thanksgiving is really about sitting around a big table with my family and stuffing ourselves with a Butterball bird and cornbread dressing.

All of this should take place, of course, at my family home in Lubbock, and therein lies a new wrinkle in this year's celebration. It has now been a year since I have been to Lubbock: the family home has been sold and my parents have moved to a suburb of Dallas. And despite agreeing with the Dixie Chicks' view of my hometown- Dust bowl-Bible belt-Got more churches than trees- at times I find myself longing for the wide open spaces, dazzling light, and big, big sky.

When I learned that Emily would not be coming to Maine for Thanksgiving I just couldn't stand the thought. So I immediately started searching for affordable flights and a Sunday sub and Bill and I made plans to head to Texas for a week. We stayed with my mom and dad in their retirement apartment in Irving, visited some friends, heard the Dallas Symphony and enjoyed sunny, warm weather. But most importantly we had Thanksgiving dinner around a big, jovial table, surrounded by family.

Last Decemeber I wrote about my struggles with Yankee stuffing and my frustration at trying to replicate my mother's cornbread dressing. Well, I had a hands-on lesson from her and now I can do it! The torch of hosting Thanksgiving dinner was officially and successfully passed to my sister Amy. It wasn't Thanksgiving in Lubbock, but it was close enough.

I suppose many of us in our 50's question some of the choices we've made: leaving home to go to college, moving to the big city of Dallas, finally settling down in Maine. I can't help but wonder what it would be like to have my parents hear one of my recitals, to see my niece and nephew on a regular basis, to enjoy family gatherings frequently instead of twice a year. (And yes, I know those get-togethers can be burdensome.) My career and a treasure trove of good friends and memories are here in Maine, but I am sometimes lonely for those blood-ties.

This fall I've become well-acquainted with a musical setting of Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken by composer Randall Thompson. For many children memorizing this poem is de rigueur in elementary school, but thanks to this wistful, poignant song I feel that I have at last, as an adult, heard the meaning of Frost's famous words.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

Monday, November 16, 2009

20. An Older Man

Today is my husband Bill's 76th birthday...and I find that it is giving me pause. Bill does not look his age and is unusually fit for a septuagenarian; nonetheless that is his age. I am 54.

When we first met (I was 27) and were in the early stages of our relationship we were both acutely aware of our age difference. We noticed that people stared at us and were confused by our physical displays of affection. But as time went on we grew comfortable with each other and didn't notice those looks so much, and then when Emily was born it just didn't matter. Being worried about what a stranger thought was the last thing on our minds.

For perhaps close to 20 years our age difference was not much of a concern. My employers and our friends never said a word and my family stopped mentioning it. Bill's health was, and continues to be, excellent. But at a recent gathering I introduced myself to a woman and as I turned to introduce Bill she blurted out And this is your father! I've become aware that a change is underway which will affect my life significantly.

I am familiar with the encroachment of old age, watching it in my parents and aunt and in numerous choir members and church friends. It can be a slow diminuendo- some forgetfulness, a bit of confusion, physical ailments large and small, loss of hearing, stiffness and aching joints, disinterest in going out- but over the course of a few years one does notice the changes. I am starting to see these things in Bill, gradually, and I say this not out of fear, blame or dread, but as a way of looking honestly at the future.

While in Ecuador this past summer Bill passed out 3 times due to the inability of his heart to pump enough oxygen thru his body. High in the Andes, there was no modern medical care and we did not really know what was happening. It was frightening enough that we had the what if? conversation. Funeral wishes and the like. Fortunately these episodes were a result of the altitude and not an underlying health problem. But I didn't know that as I struggled to keep my suddenly frail husband from collapsing.

Back to the birthday...of course we had a party. In 26 years of marriage I remember only one year that we didn't invite friends over to celebrate. This year it was a small dinner party and I served an old favorite, Chicken Marbella. And for the first time in several years I made the cake, which was over-the-top scrumptious. So here's the recipe, and for you foodies out there don't prejudge the combination of a cake mix, instant chocolate pudding and chocolate chips. Take this cake to a party and they'll think you slaved for hours.

Death by Chocolate

(from Southwest Flavor by Adele Almador)

12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 3/4 cups milk

2 eggs

1 devil's food cake mix

4 ounces instant chocolate pudding

Mix cake mix, milk and eggs for 30 seconds.

Add pudding and mix at medium speed for 2 minutes.

Stir in chips.

Pour into a greased and floured Bundt pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 55 minutes.

Let cool 5-10 minutes before releasing from pan.

This cake gets better with age, so make a day or 2 ahead of time. I served it with vanilla ice cream and a sauce made from frozen Maine strawberries.

Happy Birthday, Bill.

Monday, October 19, 2009

19. Dinner with the Homeless

Situated at 8335 feet above sea level, the beautiful city of Cuenca, about half-a-million strong, lies in the midst of the Andes in Southern Ecuador. Arriving by air, one peers out the plane window over miles and miles of red tile roofs. The intellectual center of this part of the country, Cuenca has for centuries been the birthplace of writers, artists, poets and philosophers. After being in crowded, polluted Quito it is a relief to breathe clean air and to be free of the heartwrenching child beggars tugging on your sleeve.

The old part of the city oozes charm and history and the cobblestone streets are lined with one small quaint shop after another- hatmaker, silversmith, dentist, grocer. Many of the people still dress in indegenous clothing, including Panama hats and colorful ponchos. I had the feeling that the 21st century had not quite made it in the door. The Tomebamba River winds its way through the city and on sunny days one can watch women and children washing their clothes here and then laying them on the banks to dry.

In the middle of the city is a large, traditional market containing dozens of stalls overflowing with fresh produce, meat and fish. Huge baskets of fresh blackberries, potatoes of every kind, slabs of meat hanging from the ceiling and cattle hooves artfully arranged are just a few of the market's offerings. Of course we gringos were afraid to sample much, but the place was hopping with regular customers on a weekday morning. In the midst of the crowds and hustle bustle I saw a young mother sitting on a staircase cradling her child, around eight years old, in her lap. The boy was handicapped, unable to hold up his head or focus his eyes, and near the mother was a beggar's cup. This scene stopped me dead in my tracks and I was frozen in place, seemingly incapable of either following my group or placing money in her cup. Finally, for fear of getting lost in the crowd, I turned to catch up with the others and to this day I do not understand why I did not give the woman a twenty dollar bill, or more. I regret it deeply.

For me, the high point of the choir tour to Ecuador was the time spent at La Iglesia de San Fransisco in Cuenca. A few years ago our conductor Ray and his partner David befriended the priest at this church, Padre Rigoberto Jara. At that time the church was falling into disrepair and struggling to keep its congregation together. Padre Rigoberto, a young dynamo, has brought the church back to life. The roofs are repaired, work has begun on the interior and there is a large, enthusiastic congregation. And he has begun an important mission for the area, a much-needed homeless shelter.

The day of our concert at La Iglesia, which was to be a benefit for the shelter, Ray, David and I went to the church a couple of hours early to check out the performance situation (specifically the keyboard!). There we met Hugo, a generous and enthusiastic young man, who was loaning us his keyboard for the concert. He had recently graduated from the university in Cuenca, where he studied music. Hugo was eager to demonstrate the possibilities of the keyboard and I asked him to play something for us: to my surprise he launched into a passionate, virtuosic performance of a Chopin etude.

Ray, David and I were then invited by the priest to his private quarters for tea and cookies. The four of us sat around a plain table, struggling to communicate across a significant language barrier. Padre Rigoberto's gratitude was palpable and I was touched at his offering of hospitality, a true example of where two or three are gathered...

And then it was time for dinner. The choir had arrived and I'm not sure if any of us knew that the meal was to be at the homeless shelter, adjacent to the church. We climbed a rickety metal staircase to the dining area, where I witnessed innumerable acts of mercy and kindness. A tiny old man, shuffling up the stairs, was afraid of our presence and tried to turn around and leave. One of the workers gently took his arm and guided him back into the room, refusing to let him go away hungry. The servers and the homeless were often on a first-name basis and there was genuine concern that everyone was getting enough to eat and would have a safe place to sleep that night.

Yes, it was awkward and uncomfortable, sitting in the midst of these homeless men and women. Even if we'd spoken the same language, what does one say in this situation? Some were gregarious and others would not even make eye contact. As the simple but nutritious meal was served Ray rose from his chair and asked the choir to sing a blessing- Peter Lutkin's The Lord Bless You and Keep You, which they had learned in Spanish. This is a beautiful, traditional benediction with a glorious, extended Amen that even under "normal" circumstances can bring listeners to tears. But it was so much more in this setting- a rare and extraordinary bridge between strangers and across borders, an affirmation of the human spirit.

How does one perform after an experience like this? Somehow we did- the church was packed and some of our dinner companions even came to listen. When we performed the songs from Ecuador the audience members joined in, singing at the top of their lungs, swaying, clapping. Padre Rigoberto was ecstatic and even Hugo came up to me afterwards and said Hey! You're not too bad!

This city and these people are thousands of miles from Maine. Many lack the basics of sufficient food, adequate housing and medical care. The choir did raise some much needed cash for the shelter at concerts in Brunswick and Cuenca, and we brought blankets and towels from the US. That is important; it is critical. But there is more: with our music we fed their spirits, their souls, and that is important, too.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

18. Homage to Spencer Pond

A couple of weeks ago Bill and I returned from our annual pilgrimage to an old sporting camp on Spencer Pond, a small body of water near the majestic Moosehead Lake in northern Maine. For the eighteen summers we have been going there it has been a great place for me to indulge in my favorite sports of gentle hiking, canoeing and, most of all, reading. There are six cabins, each with its own personality, plus another for the owners who live there from May thru November. Surrounded by paper company-owned land and an hour from the nearest town, one must traverse a dusty, bumpy gravel road for twelve miles to get there, always prepared to dodge lumber trucks driving fully loaded down the middle of the narrow roads.

For all these years Spencer Pond has been my get-away before starting the busy fall schedule. And one of the things that makes it so enticing is that the cabins are primitive: no electricity, no running water, plumbing "out back." They each have two gas lamps (barely OK for reading), oil lamps in the bedrooms, hand pumps at the sink and a woodstove. Somehow the absence of modern amenities takes a huge amount of stress off my shoulders, as do the screened porches overlooking the lake.

We first went to Spencer Pond in 1992, when Emily was seven. We stayed for an entire week and what a luxury that was! Emily was a curious child and loved the adventure of being out in the woods. She spent hours everyday in the swing that hung between two enormous pines, lost in her own world of imagination. As she approached her teenage years a trip to Spencer Pond became less appealing, unfortunately. What? A week alone with Mum and Papa? No friends, no TV, no radio? Occasionally we acquiesced and let her stay with a friend, but I missed her presence desperately. To her chagrin she came down with mono one year right before our scheduled trip and of course she had to go with us. Not only was Spencer Pond the perfect place for her to rest and recuperate, that time away with her was a precious gift to me.

One might think that all those visits would run together and in a way they do, but there have been some stand-out memories. Quite a number of years ago, when my parents were in better physical shape, they and my aunt went with us. We stayed in the largest cabin and immediately discovered that the plumbing situation was going to be a problem. And then there was the issue of Aunt Dot and her purse: here we were, literally in the middle of nowhere, and she wouldn't leave her purse in the cabin because there was no lock on the door. So there goes Dot, traipsing around the woods with her purse in hand. At one point we finally convinced her to leave the purse in the cabin while we took a walk, and upon our return she was just sure someone had taken some of her money!

Our dear west coast friends, Susan and Jay, accompanied us one year. They stayed in their own cabin, but we cooked all our meals together. And they were marvelous! Susan and Jay are two of the best cooks I know and we took camp cuisine to new heights. Jay was very excited about trying his luck fishing and spent a lot of time out on the dock casting a rod and reel. One early morning I was reading on the porch when Jay quietly peered through the screen. Julia, I have a little problem here. He showed me his upper arm and a fishing lure with a large hook was stuck there. Ouch. I quickly proved to be no nurse, so Bill and Jay went to awaken Bob, the owner. He roused himself from sleep and managed to extricate the barb, saving Jay a trip to the ER, at least an hour away.

Showering is a challenge, too, but one I eagerly embrace. The first step is to heat up about 2 1/2 gallons of water on the gas stove and then transfer it to a shower bag. As you bathe you must be judicious with this water, closing the clamp when you don't need it. You cannot stand and enjoy the hot water flowing over your back for minutes and minutes as you might in a modern shower. Bill has been slow to learn this and on at least two occasions I have heard screaming profanities coming from the shower stall and a request for his swimming trunks. Covered in soap and shampoo he's had to make a run for the lake to dive in and rinse off.

Getting away like this every year gives me some perspective not only on my life, but on our collective lives. Coming back to "civilization" I am acutely aware of the waste we indulge in: food, water, energy. I am reminded of the futility and impermanence of our materialistic culture. And most painful of all I witness myself participating in all this, swept along by the influences around me.

I like the simplicity of life at Spencer Pond and I like who I am there. Every year I strive to bring that person back with me: a woman who takes time to watch the birds, have a leisurely cup of tea, write letters, walk in the woods, pray. I return to the "real world" with life on a schedule, bills to pay and a balancing act of commitments every day. I have yet to find a workable balance between the quiet I crave and the work I love.

Our time in the north woods this year was especially poignant as our friends who own and manage the cabins, Bob and Jill, are retiring. A search for a new manager is underway and I hope the right person is found. But something tells me that Bill and I are going to take a year off and explore somewhere new- for some inexplicable reason that just makes sense to me. If that is the case I know it will only be a short suspension from the beauty and peace I find in my pilgrimage to Spencer Pond.

Friday, August 21, 2009

17. Dining Alfresco

Here in Maine we are in the midst of an unusually uncomfortable hot spell. After breaking out in a sweat from a simple walk down the block I try to remember the interminable winter with its endless snowstorms as well as this year's June and July with days and days of rain. And when I voice a complaint about the heat people often say Aren't you from Texas? You should be used to this! But the truth is one usually deals with the heat in Texas by turning on the air-conditioning; in most cases that is not possible here. And after a week of 90-degree plus temperatures and equal humidity everything is hot. Even the pets stretch out under the ceiling fans and move as little as possible.

Finally, though, we can eat outdoors on the balcony without wearing a sweater! Despite the sultry house I look forward to preparing a cool meal and dining alfresco after the sun drops below the maple trees. Here's the perfect menu after practicing all day in a hot church or doing paperwork in my sweltering 2nd floor office, and you never have to turn on the stove or oven:

Mediterranean Tuna Salad

Chilled Canataloupe

Hearty Bread with Real Butter

Sauvignon Blanc

I'll include the recipe for the salad, adapted from the August issue of Eating Well.

1 can beans (make it easy and use whatever you have on the shelf)

2 cans water-packed tuna, drained and flaked (5 to 6 ounces each)

1 red bell pepper, finely diced

1/2 cup finely chopped onion (red or Vidalia is nice)

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, divided

4 teaspoons capers

1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

1/2 cup lemon juice, divided

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

Freshly ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 cups mixed salad greens

Combine beans, tuna, bell pepper, onion, parsley, capers, rosemary, 1/4 cup lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons oil. Season with pepper. Combine the remaining lemon juice, oil and salt in a large salad bowl and add the greens, tossing to coat. Divide the greens among 4 plates and top with the tuna salad.

I generally have all these ingredients on hand and am lucky to have these herbs in my garden. Make sure the cantaloupe is perfectly ripe and the wine a little dry, then ENJOY! A scoop of sorbet or a piece of chocolate tops it all off nicely.

Bon appetit!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

16. Soldier Boy

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

(Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen, 1917)

On a recent Southwest Airlines flight from Nashville to Baltimore I was one of the last to board the full flight. I took the first middle seat I saw, which happened to be next to a handsome young soldier, one of a couple dozen on the plane. Normally I immediately bury my head in a book in order to skip the chit-chat with the person next to me, but when the flight attendant announced Let’s show our men and women in uniform how much we appreciate them he and I made eye contact. I felt compelled to ask the proverbial Where are you going? and when he answered Afghanistan the conversation began.

Chris, based in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, is 23 and an Army officer from a military family. He was headed to a helicopter base near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan where he will be a maintenance supervisor. A recent college graduate, he chose the military both for job security and because it is in his blood.

I asked how his parents were handling his deployment (pretty well, since his father is career military) and what his living conditions would be (a tent, some access to phone and internet services, a softball field). I wondered about the preparation he’d had for the trip, such as language and culture studies. His answer was not reassuring. Perhaps I detected some apprehension in his face, but no real fear.

Truthfully, I’m not clear anymore why we are in Afghanistan. To me it’s just another part of an unjustified, endless war that we cannot win. All of it is very, very far away and removed from my own life. But meeting Chris suddenly made it real to me, with a personal, human dimension. I was taken aback at his young, tender age, and the ages of all those with him. My daughter is 24. How, oh how, can we send our young people into these ambiguous situations? If they are lucky enough to come back alive, there is a good chance they will be seriously injured, either physically or emotionally.

Since this encounter I’ve become aware that Afghanistan is in the news everyday and that troubles there are escalating. In the newspaper I’ve begun reading the weekly summary of our soldiers killed there and in Iraq and I am sadly reminded of the fragile and transient nature of life. I fear that we are in a situation that will only escalate, with tragic results, as we fight an ill-defined enemy seemingly able to outwit our best intelligence.

At my church Chris and his company have been added to the Prayers of the People every Sunday morning. May they return home alive, healthy and whole.

Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad. Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

15. The Contraptionist

In June I spent nearly 2 weeks touring Ecuador as the accompanist for the First Parish Choir of Brunswick, ME. My friend and organ teacher Ray Cornils is the Director of Music there and in 2006 I toured Ireland and Wales with the same group.

Although I consider myself an above-average accompanist, going on these trips is really not about one’s ability to play a lot of notes or one’s sensitivity to balance and nuance. After 4 international choir tours I’ve come to realize that it is all about flexibility. With great anxiety I recall climbing the spiral staircase to one of the five organs at the Salzburg Cathedral and having not even a few seconds to test the instrument before the downbeat from the conductor. All the while I was receiving whispered instructions in German, which I do not speak, about when and what to play. On the trip to Ireland and Wales I was privileged to play a number of fine instruments, both pianos and organs. Although in most of these cases I had adequate rehearsal time, I never knew until I walked into the church what the instrument would be like. In some instances the organ was separated from the choir by the entire length of the church and I had to watch Ray via a video monitor. It all became somewhat of an inside joke between me and the choir, who peppered me with questions such as What’s it going to be today, Julia? Will we even be in the same building as you? How are those eyes in the back of your head?

As the trip to Ecuador became closer I asked Ray about the instruments I’d play. He wryly informed me that they’d be electronic keyboards as Ecuador had few good pipe organs and pianos, and those were usually out-of-tune and in bad repair. I innocently thought Fine. A piece of cake! The keyboards will be in tune and I’ll be able to see the conductor. Although I would never consider playing a concert in the US on an electric keyboard, I realized that I could not be such a perfectionist on this trip.

First stop: a beautiful village church in Cumbaya, a suburb of Quito. We were scheduled to sing for mass, then perform a concert. I marched right up to the side of the altar to discover the less-than-full-size keyboard with no music rack or pedal. Yikes. Not only that, but there was no chance to rehearse in the church because of back-to-back masses and the priest wanted the choir in the back of the church for the service. Ray made a quick decision to sing the mass a cappella, then bring the choir forward for the concert. I sat on a chair at least a foot too low, jerry-rigged my music against a mike stand and constantly reached for notes that were not on the keyboard. I was utterly frustrated! But as the concert went on I looked into the faces of the hundreds in attendance and saw that they loved the music. A deep connection between us gringos and the Ecuadoreans was forming and it did not matter that I was playing a crummy keyboard. They laughed, they cheered, they sang along. We all left that concert on a high note.

With variations, this experience continued at four other venues. At the Iglesia Compañia de Jesus in Quito I endured one of the worst rehearsals of my career, playing with the music in my lap until a wobbly stand arrived and trying to make music out of a contraption. At least it was full-size and there was a pedal (which wanted to walk away from me), but I just could not get an acceptable sound from it. This beautiful church is dripping in gold leaf and the US Ambassador to Ecuador was in attendance. Where was the Steinway grand?

In the city of Cuenca I was faced once again with a short keyboard, but this one had a bona-fide music rack and the pedal was taped to the floor! This instrument sat on a simple table, but that was not enough for the person in charge. She found a white tablecloth trimmed with roses and onto the table it went. Propped up on two thick pillows, I sat in an elegant chair. As this concert ended I found out that the next night I would be playing the same keyboard. Yes! I thought. I’ll know what I’m dealing with. Did I really think it would be so simple? This time the pedal stuck and could not be used, and even after carefully checking the settings the first chord I played sounded like an organ for a 60’s rock band.

At our last concert in Papallacta the keyboard was the best of the bunch: full-sized and with a working pedal. Ray generously gave me the single rickety music stand and gallantly conducted with his score on the floor. This location, though, had an electricity problem, and a few minutes after the program was scheduled to begin several men were still trying to plug me in to a set of bare wires! For the most part it worked, although in the middle of one piece which has a particularly nice piano part the power went out. Ray scowled in my direction and I just gently shrugged: What can I do?

Throughout the trip the choir often wondered how I could get through the concerts on these contraptions. And I even asked myself if perhaps I was compromising my musical integrity. With no exceptions, however, the concerts were packed with an audience eager to hear this American choir. They discovered such joy and meaning in our music- who was I to withhold that because of my distaste for electric keyboards? And selfishly, I, too, would have missed out on many rich, rewarding experiences.

On the bus one night after a program I announced that I was not the accompanist, but the contraptionist. And a kind, male voice replied I think that would be the Immaculate Contraptionist.

On a favorite jacket I wear a button that says Peace Through Music. Before the trip to Ecuador I believed that, intellectually, but now I believe it in my heart. Despite chasms of language, culture, economics and geography, the choir and the people who heard us made a powerful, human connection, thanks to the universal language of music.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

14. Piano Recital

Ah, Lily! Your hand position!

That scary, intimidating, yet exciting event called the Spring Piano Recital is now history. And what a rewarding and fun time it was. This year I have had 11 piano students- 8 children and 3 adults. Most of them have had a productive year, but I do admit to wanting to pull my hair out at the end of more than a few teaching days. Grace, you didn’t practice this week EITHER? Emerson, you forgot your books AGAIN? Alden, your fingers STILL look like spaghetti!

All is forgiven, though, when the recital performances are like those I heard on a recent Sunday afternoon. Most of the children have been studying for about 2 years and they are now making music. In addition to the usual Suzuki beginner pieces we were treated to the sounds of Bach, Mozart, Hummel, Kabalevsky and Bartok, and without exception these miniatures contained dynamics, correct articulation, phrasing, and feeling. In short, musicality.

In these days of technical verbosity, why does a child or adult choose to take up an instrument? Thankfully the human desire for creativity and expression cannot be fully met by electronic devices. The piano seems to enjoy a universal attraction and I feel lucky that it is my instrument and the one that I teach.

For about 2 years now I have had an especially challenging high school student that I’ll call Jim. When he first came to play for me I wasn’t sure if I could work with him. He would neither talk to me nor look me in the eye and his playing, at an intermediate level, was troublesome. His hand position was atrocious, his legs were in constant motion and he couldn’t count to save his life. Why, oh why does this kid want to play piano? I must have been up for a challenge since I decided to take him on, and for a long while it was a struggle. In addition to there being little personal connection between us, he had no idea what practicing meant. After a few months I gave him the usual song and dance: this is a waste of my time and your mother’s money.

But slowly something started to change. He learned one of Bach’s minuets and began to play with feeling. He asked to learn more Bach and chose the Musette in D made famous by Bobby McFarren and Yo-Yo Ma. About this time he even began talking to me and laughing at my cryptic jokes. I started to like this boy!

After about a year of study his grandmother came in to tell me how much piano meant to Jim. She took me aside and whispered He has Asperger’s syndrome, you know. Well, I didn’t know much about that and I immediately did some research. Bingo, it all made sense. That Jim could push aside this developmental disorder and communicate through playing the piano is a striking example of the power of music to transcend our human limitations.

I often think back to my own piano study and recitals growing up. For 12 years I studied with Mrs. Harris, a fixture among the local piano teachers. A graduate of the University of Texas, she had a large class of students and was also the organist at my church, First Baptist. She was a wonderful teacher and always had a twinkle in her eye as she conveyed her enthusiasm for the music. Many of her students, including myself, consistently won top prizes in competitions sponsored by the Lubbock Music Teachers Association. And were we ever busy! There was always another hymn festival or sonatina contest or theory exam on the horizon. She had so many students that she had to divide them in half and have 2 separate recitals.

In my teenage years Mrs. Harris and I did have a few run-ins. She was not too pleased when I announced that I wanted to play a medley from The Sound of Music for the recital. And there was a whole string of lessons when I arrived quite late, thanks to spending some time after school in my boyfriend’s car, and was subject to her glower. But through the years she gave me so much more than my parents ever paid for and was thrilled and proud that one of her students went to Baylor as a piano major.

For as long as I can remember music has been my soul food. It is the one thing that has never let me down- in my darkest days it has been a steady and comforting companion and in good times it has allowed me to express boundless joy. How fortunate I am that what sustains me also provides my physical support; sharing my love of music with students, choir members and the congregation in the pews gives my life great meaning.

My students have taught me much about the joy of expression, the need for patience, the possibility of human connectivity through music and the importance of generativity. And so this year I ended the recital with my own performance of Mendelssohn’s Gondola Song in A Major- a gift to them in thanksgiving for their presence in my life.

Friday, May 22, 2009

13. Running Interference

How does one face the indignity of old age gracefully?

I recently spent a week in the Dallas area visiting my parents and aunt in their new retirement facility. It is a lovely place with beautiful grounds, spacious living accommodations, decent food and many activities from which to choose. As the trip approached I began to feel a sense of dread- I was anxious about seeing my mother and dad there and not in the family home in Lubbock. But that particular fear did not materialize: their apartment is full of familiar things and feels like them. And most of all they are where they need to be.

But the sense of dread was not misplaced. First of all, I was unprepared for the realities of staying in a retirement place for a week. But more importantly I was dismayed by my dad’s deterioration. Even though my sister had warned me that he could barely walk, I felt that something very significant was slipping through my hands.

There are so many different types of people at the Remington and most would probably prefer to be somewhere else. Walkers, electric wheelchairs and oxygen tanks are common. Cliques form in the dining hall whereas others are left to eat alone. When entering the lobby you are forced to walk the gauntlet, through the folks sitting around chatting. It is always the same group and as you walk past you hear the not-so-whispered comments: Who’s that? Who’s she visiting? Emily was nearly assaulted by an old codger wanting to take her out to dinner.

Most amusing, yet also sad, was a couple trying to have some sort of romantic relationship. She was insanely jealous of anytime her man friend spoke to another woman and I could hear them yelling at each other as they watched wrestling matches in front of the big screen television down the hall.

For several years my dad has had congestive heart failure and spinal stenosis and has been in a slow decrescendo. In fact in 2005 the doctor gave him a year to live. But I am not surprised that he has hung on- that side of my family tree just doesn’t know how to die. They wring out every last drop of life and, unfortunately, usually wear out the caregivers in the process. As downcast as I am at seeing Dad’s demise, it is equally sad to see what’s happening to my mother.

Coming to terms with Dad’s illness has been a slow process for Mother and there have been times when I believe she has single-handedly kept him alive. They have an extraordinary marriage, but she is now a caretaker more than a wife. The strain of taking care of Dad, as well as her own aging, has led her to lean more and more on my sister and me as she struggles with decisions. Gone is the confident, optimistic woman I grew up with. And Amy and I are weary, too, after the endless persuasions, encouragements and even arguments necessary to get them out of their home in Lubbock.

It is hard for me to imagine what it feels like to be unable to take care of one’s own most basic needs or to lose control of bodily functions. I looked into the faces of the Remington residents, knowing full well that many are at this stage of life. Some are able to cover this up and perhaps even deny it, but what does it feel like on the inside, when it’s just you acknowledging it to yourself? How are some able to maintain their dignity while others slip into despair? And how many only put on a happy face, pretending to accept the situation, while actually living in a personal hell, wanting this life to end?

As I watched my mother give herself completely over to caring for my dad, sometimes sympathetically and sometimes resentfully, I could not help but wonder if I was seeing myself in the not-so-distant future. My husband is 21 years older than me, and although we have had a fairly normal married life together I see some things starting to change. Hearing loss, forgetfulness, occasional cognitive confusion- these seem inevitable signs of aging which are becoming more noticeable and problematic. Bill has often said, only half-jokingly, that he doesn’t need long-term care insurance because he has his younger wife to take care of him.

As a wife I know that I will, in fact, take care of Bill in any way necessary as he grows older. But selfishly, I don’t want to turn into my mother. I have years left of energy and interest in my career as a musician: many organ works to learn and perform and many choral works to conduct. There are thousands of miles I want to cover and so many friends to spend time with… I pray that fate will not ask me to spend these peak years mainly as a caregiver.

I have an indelible memory of my trip: of being in Target with my mother as she begged the pharmacist to fill a prescription which the doctor had forgotten to authorize, all the while holding a bag of adult diapers. Every bit of grief, worry and pain that she’s endured the past few years were etched on her face… and in my heart as well. I returned to Maine feeling bruised and battered, as if I’d been running interference between my parents and the blows of life.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

12. Music for the Weekend

A few years ago CD’s for certain occasions or times of the day were quite popular. Titles such as Mozart For Your Morning or A Baroque Breakfast were ubiquitous at gift shops and bookstores. The local classical music station here in Maine even has special programming for Sunday brunches, weeknight dinners and the evening commute. I suppose these ideas have been good marketing tools and have at times encouraged the neophyte to purchase a recording.

My fingers seem to have been running a marathon lately, playing a lot of music which would never turn up on these commercial lists. I am the accompanist for the Acadia Choral Society, a community choir of around 60 voices, and our spring concerts were May 2 and 3. On these programs I played piano, organ and harpsichord- a challenge, to be sure. We did Handel’s youthful Dixit Dominus, four songs by Stephen Paulus, and three anthems by John Ireland in which I got to “pull out all the stops” on the organ. The concerts are in my church, so I am accustomed to the piano and organ as well as the acoustics.

The harpsichord is another story. It is not my favorite sound and I am often reminded of the esteemed conductor Sir Thomas Beecham’s comment that it sounds not unlike two skeletons copulating. I haven’t played one since graduate school, so I was a bit worried about it. Yes, the keyboards are laid out the same as a piano, but the touch is stiff and finicky, to say the least. There is no damper pedal and the sound evaporates immediately. And then there are the many early music “experts” who are very particular about style and ornamentation. Would any be in the audience? Luckily I’ve played enough Baroque music on a tracker organ to have a good idea of what to do.

The Handel was accompanied by eleven strings plus harpsichord and many times I’m sure I wasn’t even heard. But there were a couple of movements for solo voice and continuo where my part was exposed and prominent. All in all it was fun and I think I did fairly well (I haven’t heard the recording yet). That is, until I reached the last four pages of the piece in the second performance. I began to notice an odd clanking sound and something looked amiss when I glanced at the inside of the instrument. Some keys would not rebound after playing them, so I shifted to the upper manual. Then those keys began to malfunction and within seconds all the notes remained down and I could not play the instrument! What to do? If I were to just sit there with my hands in my lap it would surely draw attention to the problem. Fortunately the entire orchestra was playing forte at this point and my part would not be missed. I decided to fake it by keeping my fingers moving without actually touching the keys, and nobody was the wiser.

I still don’t understand what happened; something must have gone out of adjustment. When the harpsichord technician came to move it back to the library the day after the concert, he was not alarmed. However, if I end up playing this instrument again I am going to know more about its mechanics!

The Ireland pieces were fun to play and the local critic even commented on the spine-tingling organ accompaniment in one. But his Te Deum quickly became known as the
Tedium among the choir because at twenty pages it is just too long. Stephen Paulus, a Pulitzer- prize winning composer, has a beautiful way of setting text, but I was disappointed that the choir was unable to sing the appointed ones a cappella. They would have been much more effective without the piano quietly plunking out the notes.

The program was long and demanding and the chorale sounded a little tired by the end of the second concert. Still, the comraderie among the singers was strong and there is always some post-concert euphoria surrounding a successful performance. I chose to bypass the party afterwards, opting to have dinner with friends.

The following is a Celtic invocation, used as the text in one of the Paulus songs. It is a beautiful prayer of reverence and thanksgiving which gave me pause every time we rehearsed it. I’ve decided to recite it every morning for awhile in hopes that it will inspire me to each day look beyond the problems, hassles and struggles of life; to find the beauty, hope and peace that exist in my world.

May I speak each day according to Thy justice,
Each day may I show thy chastening, O God;
May I speak each day according to Thy wisdom,
Each day and night may I be at peace with Thee.

Each day may I count the causes of Thy mercy,
May I each day give heed to Thy laws;
Each day may I compose to Thee a song,
May I harp each day Thy praise, O God.

May I each day give love to Thee, Jesu,
Each night may I do the same;
Each day and night, dark and light,
May I laud Thy goodness to me, O God.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

11. Friday Night Lights

I freely admit it: I am obsessed with the television show Friday Night Lights. Please don’t invite me to do something on that evening, the answer will be no; I will be at home faithfully watching at 9 pm.

When I announce my enthusiasm for this show the response is invariably something along these lines: WHAT??? You like a football show??? (I do like football, but that is a different story). FNL is not about football. It is about people whose lives have football as a common denominator. Football is just the back drop, serving as a binding to hold the story together. Yes, I’m sure it can be classified as a “soap opera.” But it is a damn good one, with believable characters that are always fully human.

In almost every episode there is for me an “ah-ha” moment, where I think they got that right: Coach’s grabbing Smash at his college try-out and saying to his face God has placed you HERE to do what you’re best at. Julie’s looking expectantly in the mirror after her first sexual experience to see if she notices a difference. Tyra’s Yes, ma’am. Matt’s grandmother relying on a member of her Sunday school class to take her to a doctor’s appointment. Sexy, smart Tami’s talk with her daughter about sex, a mixture of sadness and relief.

And then there’s Buddy. Dear, dear Buddy. I know him; he is familiar to me. A middle-age man carrying too much weight, his youthful good lucks still apparent. Always wanting to do what’s best for his family, his friends, his business, but sometimes getting waylaid by his passions. A car dealer and head of the team boosters, he would cut off his right hand to save someone or something he loves.

When the movie version of Friday Night Lights came out I said to two teenage boys in my youth choir, That was my life in high school. And indeed that is true. The original story took place in Odessa, Texas, a place even grimmer and drier than Lubbock. Life in both places was governed by sports schedules and church. My family had season tickets on the 50 yard line to the Texas Tech football games and even occasionally traveled out of town to watch the Red Raiders play. And equally important was high school football. I wouldn’t have missed a Friday night under the lights for anything. My brother played as did my high school sweetheart.

Since I had a boyfriend on the team Friday nights were really all about after the game. And there was quite a build-up to that, beginning with a pep rally at school in an auditorium filled with screaming, hormone-laced teenagers, led by the cheerleaders (in my day the popular, and yes, loose, girls), all for the benefit of the incredibly handsome young men dressed up in coat and tie, sitting on the stage.

The football game itself produced a comraderie among the fans that I’ve rarely experienced since. Homecoming meant that the girls were weighed down by huge mum corsages laden with floor length ribbons, cowbells and miniature footballs. A feeling of being on top of the world was in the air when we won, tears and despondency when we lost. A loyal group of fans would cheer the team as they returned to the bus, no matter what the outcome of the game.

I would separate from my girlfriends at this point and wait for my boyfriend Tommy to come by my house. A win would often mean a trip out for a burger and a loss would usually keep us at my house. We did not go to the wild parties depicted in the show; we wanted to be alone. With eyes and ears out for my mother, passion was the name of this game, whether it was in Tommy’s car or on the couch in the living room. The game results dictated that passion, too: enthusiastic and celebratory if we won; quiet and ardent if we lost.

Perhaps watching Friday Night lights is just my middle-aged sentimentalism. Yet perhaps it is more, for it brings up that nagging question of leaving Texas, leaving a husband, leaving family. Leaving a familiar, comfortable, yes good way of life for something new in this state of Maine.

Monday, March 2, 2009

10. Rx for the Winter Blahs

Winter seems especially long this year. Here it is early March and in the past 10 days there have been 3 snow days in which schools were closed and I could not safely get to work. This is on top of several snow days earlier in December and January. The first one of the year is always a welcomed gift; the second is still nice; but by now I am just weary of rescheduling lessons and canceling rehearsals and plans.

Beginning in early January I decided to tackle winter head-on. Many people in Maine do this by getting outside for skiing or snowmobiling, but not me- I tried that when we first moved here and it didn’t work. Why does one choose to be outside in the cold??? My solution- entertaining- is ever so much better.

Almost every weekend we have had friends both old and new over for dinner. And of course this doesn’t only involve the few hours spent at the dinner party itself, but the cleaning, planning, cooking and clean-up. It has been a marvelous way to keep the winter doldrums at bay for both the hosts and guests. And despite having four new cookbooks, this year I have tended toward the tried-and-true: chili, black bean burritos, chicken curry, and an all-time favorite from Silver Palate, Chicken Marbella.

Last evening four intrepid friends braved the snowstorm and traveled about 20 miles to our house: Dick and Diana, musician friends; and Ian and Brian, a retired Episcopal priest and an organist, respectively. Diana brought a yummy hot cheese dip and the rest of the menu was as follows:

Crudités with Hummus and Kalamata Olives
Fricasse of Chicken with Winter Vegetables
Michael’s Salad
Crusty Bread with Roasted Garlic
Southern Pecan Pie with Whipped Cream

There were cocktails by the fire, wine with dinner, and strong coffee with dessert. A jovial evening with good food, good wine, and good conversation- my no-fail Rx for the winter blahs.

In case the above menu whets your appetite, here are some of the recipes. My apologies to the author of the chicken stew: I cut it out of a magazine a number of years ago without notating the source. It is a perfect cold weather dish.

Fricasse of Chicken with Winter Vegetables
6 servings

6 large skinless boneless chicken thighs
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups sliced leeks (white and pale green parts only)
3 cups chopped peeled parsnips
2 cups thinly sliced peeled carrots
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic
3 cups low-salt chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1/8 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

Chopped fresh parsley
Grated lemon peel

Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add chicken; brown on all sides, about 8 minutes. Transfer to plate. Discard drippings from pot.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in same pot over medium heat. Add leeks, parsnips, carrots and garlic. Sauté until vegetables are tender and beginning to brown, about 6 minutes. Add broth, wine, oregano, fennel seed and red pepper. Bring to simmer. Add chicken. Cover; simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Transfer stew to bowls and garnish with parsley and lemon peel.

Michael’s Salad

Michael is my hairdresser and a superb cook-I always come away from my haircuts hungry!

Put the following in a large bowl:

Romaine lettuce
Mandarin oranges
Smokehouse almonds
Red onion, sliced
Gorgonzola crumbles

Toss with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Even confirmed salad-haters like this one.

Southern Pecan Pie

This is from the Houston Junior League Cookbook, 1968. It is unusual in that it doesn’t use disgusting, cloying Karo syrup. Every time I serve this pie someone tells me it is absolutely the best pecan pie they’ve ever tasted.

1 unbaked pastry shell
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
½ cup white sugar
1 tablespoon flour
2 eggs
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup butter, melted (don’t substitute!)
1 generous cup pecans, chopped

Mix brown sugar, white sugar and flour. Add eggs, milk, vanilla and melted butter; beat well. Fold in pecans. Pour into unbaked pastry shell and bake in 375 degree oven for 40-50 minutes. Serve with whipped cream.

The top of this pie burns easily, so keep an eye on it.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

9. Nuala

One day last spring as I was perusing my weekly New York Times (Friday edition, for the movie reviews and concert listings) an obituary caught my eye. It was for the Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain. Although I had never heard of her I was intrigued by her life and her stature as the “female Frank McCourt.” A few days later my friend Christie mentioned her to me and said how moved she had been years ago when listening to her first memoir on tape.

Since traveling to Ireland in 2006 and seeing several ancestral names everywhere I turned, I have been interested in learning more about this enigmatic country and its people. So within a week of reading Nuala’s obituary I made my way over to the library across the street from where I work and discovered they had both her first memoir, Are You Somebody? and her first novel, My Dream of You. After Christie’s recommendation I was most interested in the memoir, but it was missing from the shelf. The librarian promised to find it for me and I reluctantly checked out the novel, thinking guiltily of the large stack of fiction by my bedside waiting to be read.

I had a few minutes to spare, so I took the book and walked down the street for a cup of tea at my favorite café. I opened the book to begin reading and that was the end of any thought of the stack beside the bed.

The main character in the novel, Kathleen, is about my age, and although her circumstances are entirely different than my own, I immediately sensed that she was someone I knew. Her deep longing for something more, something out of the ordinary, was familiar. Her love/hate relationship with her home, Ireland, and subsequent return there resonated with me. I admired her unsentimental look at her own life and her unflinching desire for passion, despite her struggles to find it.

My favorite scene occurs early on in the novel: Kathleen has returned to Ireland to do research for a book and is staying at a remote cottage. One evening she brings home a man that she only just met at a bar and the tenderness and intimacy that these two strangers share is almost heartbreaking. The next morning she awakes alone, to a cold cottage. Upon realizing that she has been left she performs the usual mind games that people in this situation do, until she finds a note from her married lover saying: “If I did not go then I could never go at all. I could never leave you if I stayed. You are Everything a man could desire. Youre a Queen in any bodys world. You will always be in my memory.”[sic]

At about this point in the book I also began reading the memoir Are You Somebody? And the separation between fact and fiction became very blurred. The novel, as many are, is greatly inspired by the author’s own life. Growing up in a large, poor family, with an alcoholic mother and philandering father, Nuala managed to survive her childhood thru her love of books. She kept pushing and struggling against her inherited lot in life, finally becoming one of Ireland’s best known columnists. Yet work, as for most of us, was not enough; she longed for a soulmate with whom she could share her life. For a number of years she found this with Nell. Nuala’s survival of their devastating break-up is enough to give anyone courage and strength in the darkest times.

I read these books slowly, savoring every page and not wanting them to end. I felt both emotionally drained and invigorated at the end of each chapter. And then to my delight I discovered there was yet another memoir, Almost There, which picks up after Are You Somebody?

Despite being a seemingly private person, Nuala is universally recognized for her penetrating honesty and straightforwardness. Yet as difficult as it must have been for her to bare her soul in these books, I am most amazed at her honesty with herself. For to show herself to the world in such an open manner she had to first look deeply inside and acknowledge the sometimes uncomfortable truth of who she was. .

In looking through Almost There as I was preparing to write this, all my margin notes and underlinings pointed to a general idea that I had missed upon first reading. In the late 90’s Nuala moved part time to New York City to begin work on My Dream of You. She writes extensively of her sadness at leaving Ireland coupled with the excitement of a new life in a city with no boundaries. And it is in New York that she finally fulfills her destiny, both personally and professionally. She had been given the freedom to become herself.

In these postings you have heard me lament leaving Texas and I’m sure that will come up again (and again). It is my true home and I yearn for my family, my friends and the big open sky on a regular basis. But I see now that moving to Maine enabled me to become the musician I was meant to be. Here is where I’ve been given opportunities to create my own type of church music program, reach hundreds of people through my performing, travel internationally as an accompanist, play magnificent instruments, and teach piano in a non-competitive way. Had I stayed in Texas I would always be the pianist who tried to play organ, trying to meet goals and fulfill expectations that were not my own.

As much as I question living in this cold, occasional barren land, I am deeply grateful to this generous state for allowing me to fulfill my musical destiny.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

8. The Psalm

The Psalm last Sunday caught my attention.

One of the things I like about the Episcopal church is its orderly use of scripture. Four readings every week: Old Testament, New Testament, Gospel, and a Psalm. We follow a three-year cycle called the Revised Common Lectionary and as a musician it is most helpful. I know far in advance what the lessons will be and if I were so inclined I could plan the music today for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 2025. The lectionary does not skip over difficult passages and it binds the readings together in a meaningful and relevant way. Best of all the preacher of the day can’t prepare a sermon and then go looking for scripture to back it up.

At my church we sing the Psalm on most Sundays when the choir is present. We do this in various ways, from plainchant to Anglican chant to hymntunes. Often the music allows the text to be understood on a deeper level than just words alone. The choir rehearses the Psalm several times and gets to know it well. This week we used a beautiful Simplified Anglican Chant which particularly highlighted the words of the Psalm.

Psalm 139 is about God’s loving creation of all human beings and the complete knowledge God has of each of us. The Psalmist sits in wonder and amazement that God “created my inmost parts; knit me together in my mother’s womb”. And he goes on to thank God, because “I am wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.” Please understand that I don’t take this literally; in fact I’m not sure I can begin to explain what it means to me. But the idea of a Creator taking the time to know every part of me is humbling.

I have been wondering why this Psalm struck such a chord with me; why I have not been able to get both the music and text out of my head for several days now. Maybe this is at least part of the answer: for some time I have been quite busy as a caretaker; of my parents, my husband, some friends. I do this willingly and freely, even perhaps naturally. But the balance between caring for others and myself can get skewed and this past week was one of those times. Singing that Psalm eased my weariness and filled my depleted spirit. And for that I am truly grateful.

Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17

Lord, you have searched me out and known me;
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting places
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
You press upon me behind and before
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.

For you yourself created my inmost parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will thank you because I am marvelously made;
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.

My body was not hidden from you,
while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book;
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.

How deep I find your thoughts, O God!
how great is the sum of them!
If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand;
to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

8. Thanksgiving and Hope

Thursday, January 15, 2009

7. So Many Books, So Little Time

I have always loved that saying, ever since I saw it on a button worn by a librarian years ago. It is exactly how I feel, constantly. For a few years now I have been keeping a journal of the books I read and looking at the list for 2008 I realize what a good reading year it was. That list is unusually lengthy, though, and that gives me pause as it seems to point to some changes in my life, particularly my growing desire, and need, for solitude.

My preferred diet of soul food has long been both listening to and performing music. Those are what have brought me through the roughest times of my life. But increasingly I find that I need quiet, and lots of it. It is restorative and gives me energy to be my public self. And what better place to find quiet than when reading a book. On many a cold winter weekend my favorite activity is to sit by the fire and read. During stressful performance times a book is my solace and comfort. Sometimes I just can’t wait for the chores of the day to end so that I can crawl into bed with my latest companion.

In no particular order here are my favorites from the past year, several of which were written well before 2008. It has been a difficult job culling this list to something reasonable and after half a century of reading mostly novels, I find it interesting to see so much non-fiction on my list.

Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser: a huge, entertaining and yes, controversial book that I read in preparation for a trip to Paris with Emily last spring. I learned so much about the history and culture of the 18th century and it certainly made my trip more meaningful.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert: a re-read and another prep for Paris. This time around I found myself seeing the heroine as a sympathetic character and understanding her plight to be more than that of just a spoiled woman.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini: a novel about two women in modern day Afghanistan. Even though our country has been “at war” with Afghanistan for years now, I knew little about it or its people. The plight of these women is so desperate as to seem almost hopeless. This book spurred me to learn more and led me to an American organization that solicits and sends handknits to the people there:

Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri: two beautiful books of heart wrenching short stories about love, loss, and acceptance.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver: both reading this book and traveling to Paris have made me very aware of what I put in my mouth. I have devoured all of Kingsolver’s novels and couldn’t put down this chronicle of her family’s year of eating only locally grown and raised foods. Fortunately I read this in the summer when we had a garden in our backyard and a farmer’s market down the street. Now I cringe in the supermarket when I see that the asparagus I want is from South America and the whole wheat bread seems to have more chemicals than flour.

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge: Bill’s daughters gave him this for his 75th birthday, not realizing that it was really me who would enjoy it. Both humorous and poignant, this is a novel of aging and the depletion that comes with it. It helped me look at the older people in my life with more compassion and understanding.

To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed by Alix Cates Shulman: This small volume caught my eye in the new books section of the Bar Harbor library. The author tells the story of her husband’s catastrophic fall and subsequent brain damage. So many messages are in this book: live in the moment, be grateful for your blessings, life can change in an instant and nothing you do can prepare you for that. This woman’s courage and deep, abiding love for her husband and their marriage was extremely moving.

An American Childhood by Annie Dillard: for years I have wanted to read this author and I finally did. I loved her look back at growing up and discovering what it means to be alive.

I have saved the best for last: as wonderful as all the above books are, my favorite reads of 2008 were three books by Nuala O’Faolain. They deserve a separate posting and that will be next.

Happy Reading.