Friday, December 31, 2010

37. Happy Holiday

I woke up on Christmas Day with a deep sense of gratitude. As the early morning sun shone thru the window I took a few minutes to count my blessings...good health, a loving family and long marriage, a happy daughter, meaningful work, enough money, many dear friends, hope for the future.
This Christmas has been very special and full of joy. Emily and Jeff spent the holiday with us and they brought a welcome addition to our celebration. We had a full house with gifts, books, laptops and iPhones scattered all around, movies of varying quality, music, NPR, and a bustling kitchen. I can't remember the last time someone prepared Christmas breakfast for me, and this one was stellar- omelettes, bacon, and babka. And to add to it all there was a little levity...
All four of us attended the 4 pm service on Christmas Eve, came home for a simple supper of fish stew, then Bill and I went back to St. Saviour's to play and sing for the 10 pm service. While we were gone some kitchen elves made a cake, frosted it and then decorated it with this: Happy Birthday Jesus. Those same elves hid it on the front porch, cleaned every trace of preparation from the kitchen, and presented it Christmas morning on our special occasion cake plate.
Keep in mind this comes from a Jew and soon-to-be Jew...and this is humor that I like. Come back soon, Em and Jeff!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

36. Found in the Offering Box

The best of what makes us human will survive as long as there is just one person left who can play music like that!
As one enters the main doors of St. Saviour's Episcopal Parish in Bar Harbor there is a locked, metal box on the wall for gifts of money to the church. The above note was found in that box in August.

From June until the end of October hundreds, maybe even thousands of tourists flock thru our doors during the week and on Sundays. Being next door to Acadia National Park and sporting an unbelievable location combining ocean and mountains, Bar Harbor is a big tourist destination. The year the town will be visited by approximately 100 cruise ships alone. St. Saviour's is on the National Historic Registry and is famous for its Tiffany windows; hence many, many people want to see it for themselves.

But there is so much more to this beautiful space than the windows. There is a profound, awe-inspiring sense of the sacred here. I have witnessed countless examples of people of many nationalities and faiths (or no faith) be struck dumb as they enter the church. The feeling of something greater than ourselves is present, and I confess to being aware of it every time I am there.
I do a lot of practicing in August and many visitors sit down to listen for a few minutes. Often they are even on their knees praying. It's a little strange to be off in my own world of the music and discover that someone is listening, and I have to put that out of my mind so that I am not distracted. Sometimes someone will quietly say thank-you as they are leaving and at times the listener will have the courage to approach me on the bench. But I never fail to see that somehow the music has comforted or transformed the listeners, even if just for a few minutes.

This posting is not about me and any special ability I might have as an organist. It is about the power and meaning of music, whether new or ancient, in this special place. How fortunate I am to be the conduit for that, and I am filled with gratitude.

Monday, October 4, 2010

35. Happy News

I am delighted to report that our daughter Emily is engaged to be married. She and Jeff have been together for almost two years and I think they are a good match. As an example, he is able to make Emily laugh in a way I've rarely seen and that is good! Bill and I are looking forward to having Jeff be a part of our family, and as a bonus we really enjoy his parents, too.

This is turning out to be one of those moments when I am acutely aware of the passage of time, of entering a new phase of life, of handing over the keys to the next generation. My head is now bursting with memories of Emily's presence in my life as well as my own two weddings. I feel as if I'm on a cloud, looking down at my life and seeing many good times, mixed with a dash of regret and some mistakes.

Lately I have been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed. She is a wise and thoughtful writer and I can only wish that I had been tuned into her sort of wisdom when I was younger. Emily is 25, and by the time I was her age I had already been married and divorced from my childhood sweetheart. When I married Bill at age 28 I was only slightly more aware of what a long-term commitment involved. We have rolled with the punches, however, and in September joyfully celebrated our 27th anniversary.

From what I've witnessed both Emily and Jeff have given much thought to their vision for a life together. Is there any way I can tell them that the gift of love is what makes life worth living? Can I speak of the importance of cherishing one another above all else? Will I be able to support them during the rough spots while encouraging them to keep their faith in each other? These precepts are what I've come to believe through experience and observation. Already I see that their love for one another is deep and that brings me great joy.

Congratulations, dear ones.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

34. Island Cottage

The past two months have been frenetic, rather like an Allegro con fuoco, yet full of many good things...the AGO convention in DC, a weekend with Emily and Jeff in their new place, the Sewanee Church Musicians Conference, visits from several good friends...and full of an enormous amount of work including playing two recitals and managing a concert series. I feel like I spent the entire month of August sitting on an organ bench somewhere. As the last tremendous chord of my recital at St. Saviour's in late August resonated throughout the church, I let myself think ahead a bit...vacation, a true vacation!

For 18 years we spent some time around Labor Day in the north woods of Maine (see Homage to Spencer Pond, No. 18). This year felt like the time to try something different, so for a week we rented a cottage on Campobello, a small island roughly 10 miles off the northern coast of Maine. It is reached by means of a short bridge from Lubec, and even though a passport is needed to get through customs it is the easiest international trip I can imagine. Simply by driving over that bridge you're in friendly, bilingual Canada.

Campobello is perhaps best known as the summer home of FDR, but mainly this is a quiet and often poor place, where many people just barely get by with fishing or service jobs. The island has its share of rundown houses, abandoned trailers and trash alongside the roads. It is also an immensely beautiful place with a bold rocky coast on the east side and quiet coves and harbors on the west. There is a dramatic lighthouse where one can spot whales, seals and eagles.

I wanted long days with nothing on the schedule but hours of reading, walks along the coast and quiet candlelit dinners. I got my wish, and more. Despite intense and unusual heat we dutifully traipsed out for a hike each day and discovered the natural air-conditioning at Liberty Point. I read a fantastic book, Saturday by Ian McEwan, and evenings were spent with a simple supper and glass of wine on the deck overlooking the water and magnificent sunset. Best of all, I began each day on that same deck with a cup of coffee and some poetry and realized, this is enough. I am renewed.

And now it's back to the hectic fall routine of conducting, teaching, accompanying and practicing. As I do at this juncture every year I vow to somehow stay on top of things while at the same time looking after that part of me that needs quiet and time alone. I don't have the answer to that conundrum, but I can keep trying.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

33. Challenge

Last week I had the great pleasure of performing in recital at St. John's Roman Catholic Church in Bangor. This was my third time to play there, on an instrument I lovingly refer to as The Beast. A 3-manual tracker situated in a high, rear loft, the organ is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. The sounds from the pipes float out over the organist's head to fill the cavernous space. That is one of the reasons I like to play there: the acoustics are so good that the quietest flute stop will surround the audience and full organ will rattle the pews. But, as I said, I do call it The Beast for good reason: the pedal board is flat and a couple of notes short, the lettering on the stops is faded and illegible, which means I have to have my cheat sheet nearby, and there are no pistons to pre-set registrations. All those things mean that I am definitely out of my comfort zone.

This year an oboist friend, David, played on two numbers with me. I had thought that the sound of the oboe would be gorgeous in that space, and I was right. In addition to the works for oboe and organ I played several solos, including Karg-Elert's Nun danket, Vierne's Clair de Lune, some spirituals arranged by Calvin Taylor, and Denis Bedard's exciting Suite du premier ton.

The past couple of years I have struggled some with performance. There have been times when it was hard to muster enough energy for the intense preparation, when I couldn't focus as I was playing, when my nerves threatened to get the best of me. This time I was truly ready to play and I kept repeating to myself a clinician's recent advice: if you have adequately prepared, just open the door and walk thru it. As I strode out to take my first bow I saw many friends (even Christie from Connecticut), colleagues and strangers, and felt a warm rush of support for what I was about to do.

Our newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, has been following an interesting story lately. A 50 year-old woman, recently laid-off and divorced, with grown children, decided to attempt a 740-mile solo kayak odyssey along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge, New York, to Fort Kent, Maine. One hears about these mid-life adventures fairly often, but for some reason this one caught my eye. I tried to imagine the courage it took to even start out, the necessary preparation of careful packing and the need to be in superior physical shape. After 58 days she successfully finished the journey.

Bill asked me if I could imagine doing something like that and before I could blurt out No! something clicked inside my brain. While I'm not inclined to go into the wilderness by myself, I think playing recitals is my own sort of mid-life challenge. There are actually a number of similarities: I didn't begin playing organ recitals in places other than my own church until age 52, I am entirely alone on that organ bench, and the preparation required is long and intense. A well-played concert is a combination of the mental and the physical, plus a bit of grit thrown in for good measure.

No performance is perfect-there was a missed repeat, some new harmony coming from the pedals, and my left hand on the wrong manual at one point-but all in all I was pleased. I think, and hope, that the spirit of the composer's wishes came through in my playing and I continue to be grateful for both the ability and opportunity to make beautiful music.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

32. Master Class

This month I spent a week at the Sewanee Church Musicians Conference in Monteagle, Tennessee. Situated on the beautiful Cumberland Plateau, the area is full of winding roads and lush forests. Many artists and writers call this part of the state home, and for good reason. It is high enough to be away from the unrelenting heat of the Deep South and far enough from a major city that the night sky is brilliant. Although Monteagle is the base for our activities, a number of events also take place on the beautiful campus of the University of the South in nearby Sewanee.

This was my 4th year to attend the conference and by now it is sort of like a homecoming...I've made a number of good friends there as well as many acquaintances, and reconnecting after a year is both fun and interesting. Most of us work as organists and choirmasters in Episcopal churches and that common bond usually allows us to converse on a meaningful level despite political and theological differences.

Each day begins with a Eucharist at 7:30 (I confess to not always attending these) followed by rehearsals, workshops, lectures, recitals and music-reading sessions. There is not much free time, but I try to squeeze in a swim now and then and a late night walk with friends. And of course, there's the food...tons and tons of marvelous southern-style cooking served 3 times a day. Grits, sausage, barbeque, chess pie-we all laugh at our expanding waistlines while we continue to shovel it in. I dare say 100% of the attendees are on a diet this week! But along with the food come great opportunities for ample conversation with folks from all over the US, and this year, Barbados. Most evenings after dinner a large group gathers on one of 2 verandas to have a drink, tell a joke and wind down.

Yes, it's a lot of fun, but the musical and liturgical ideas plus the training I receive are on a par with none other. This year that was especially true because I signed up to play for a master class for our organist clinician, Peter Richard Conte. Peter is a world-class performer: in addition to his duties as organist-choirmaster at St. Clements's Church in Philadelphia he is the Grand Court Organist for the Wannamaker Organ at Macy's department store in the same city. The famous Wannamaker organ has 6 manuals and 28,000 pipes. When not touring Peter performs there twice daily, 6 times a week.

The master class took place on the next-to-last day of the conference. I had plenty of time to get used to an unfamiliar instrument, but it also meant that the event was hanging over me for most of the week. It is not easy to play for a famous organist and your peers! I was nervous and particularly struggled to put it out of my mind at night; however, at the same time I really wanted to play.

I chose Louis Vierne's Clair de Lune, an evocative, somewhat hazy piece of about 10 minutes duration. I did alright: as with any performance some things turned out very well, others not. But I was able to hold my head up afterwards and best of all I got some very practical tips from Peter on registration, articulation and phrasing. The end result was definitely worth the effort.

I am grateful to my friends Ellen, Elise, Nina and Lyn (left to right, below) for their encouragement and support. When I threatened to back out they would not hear of it, and on that free Saturday afternoon when they could have been out exploring the countryside they came to hear me play. Thank you! I hope I can do the same for you all next time.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

31. For the Beauty

An exceptionally long and mild spring, a beautiful beginning to summer in Maine, and a recent roadtrip rambling thru the backwoods of Vermont have reminded me of a favorite hymn. How lucky I am to breathe fresh, clean see the ocean everyday as I drive to walk on still forest look up at a bright night sky and see hundreds of be loved by dear friends and family.

For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth over and around us lies,

For the beauty of each hour of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower, sun and moon, and stars of light,

For the joy of ear and eye, for the heart and mind's delight,
For the mystic harmony linking sense to sound and sight,

For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth and friends above, for all gentle thoughts and mild,

Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.

Folliet Sandford Pierpoint (1835-1917)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

30. Drowning in Stuff

When I was in Washington last month for graduation, Bill's daughter Bettina hosted a celebratory luncheon in the co-op apartment she and her husband Ilia bought last fall. It was such a treat for me to be a guest there. By many standards it would be considered small- a one bedroom, one bath, with scant storage or closet space. But it has an ample, renovated kitchen , several large windows which provide good light, and is in a charming older building in a great DC location. Bettina and Ilia have creatively solved the storage problem with the help of Ikea and the place looks great.

Since returning to Maine, to our four bedroom house on half an acre of land, I have not been able to stop thinking about what life would be like in that sort of place. At the very least it would mean one could not accumulate stuff in the normal American way. And I find that idea extremely liberating.

Exactly four years ago Bill and I moved to Ellsworth to be closer to my work in Bar Harbor. We were able to buy a beautiful, restored Dutch Colonial which very nearly fulfills all our dreams of a Maine house. When Emily first saw it she exclaimed why couldn't we have had this house when I was growing up??? Having been built in the 1940's it, too, is rather short on closet space, but it has a huge, walk-up attic, and therein lies a problem. Our move happened very quickly and we didn't have time to clean out or have a garage sale. So for the most part we just moved everything, right up to the attic.

Of course I had planned to carefully go through the accumulations of the nine years we lived in Camden. But I was so busy commuting to a new job that there were literally not enough hours to do things right. The day the movers came I wasn't even able to follow the truck to our new house because I had an important rehearsal for an upcoming tour to Ireland and Wales. My good friend Kate was Bill's surrogate wife that day, going to our new home with him, helping place the furniture and boxes, and making runs for pizza and beer.

I don't consider myself a packrat, but when I look around my house I start to believe I've been fooling myself. Let's start with the kitchen and dining room: I have five sets of china, three sets of flatware, Waterford crystal, stemware from my grandmother as well as some from a trip to Germany, and a lot of hand-thrown pottery that I began collecting when we first came to Maine. I have inherited a lot of these things, but all the same there they are, making clutter and taking up space. Yes, I love to set a beautiful set of china and flatware at a time.

Like most women I like clothes...and shoes...and jewelry. (I will not admit to the number of pairs of shoes in my closet here!) And I am just frugal enough to keep things just in case. Our bookcases are overflowing despite my constant weeding, and CD's, cassette tapes and LP's fill several storage spaces. Then there is the nature of my job...I have a lifetime's accumulation of piano music and my grand is piled high with music for my students. In my office at church are shelves of organ music and filing cabinets of teaching music, and littered across the floor in orderly piles are all the choral anthems I someday hope to conduct. The music bench by the organ is full of music to try, or to learn, or that I'm playing in the near future.

Lots of stuff...on most days, though, if you were to walk into my house or office, you might be deceived and think things were mostly orderly and neat. But then, I won't take you to the attic, that repository for all things overflow. There you'll find everything we should have given up when we moved, on top of Bill's even larger accumulation of stuff from his five-plus decades of music teaching and performing.

And so...I am starting to feel burdened by all this stuff. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind does NOT work for me. Sometimes the size of our house weighs on me, too, although it is nearly perfect for our life of teaching, entertaining and hosting friends and family. Does my feeling of being overwhelmed have to do with age? Does it speak of a spiritual need? Do I feel guilty because I have so much? I wish I knew...

I have read numerous books and articles on the popular idea of simplicity as a lifestyle and discipline, and have even adopted many of the tenets of that movement to my own life. I honestly don't know where these current thoughts of mine will lead...a couple of weeks ago I spent an hour going through all my personal piano music and moved two dozen or so scores on to a music library. It felt good, very good.

I am just finishing a rigorous period of work and obligations, causing me to feel unusually weary and drained. I suspect that my long days are contributing to this sense of being overwhelmed, of drowning. But beginning the first day of summer I have 4 weeks off! This time is a combination of sabbatical, continuing education and vacation during which I plan to rest, feed my soul and...tackle the stuff?

I'll let you know.

Monday, May 31, 2010

29. Graduation

Another milestone... I recently wondered in these pages how I could be old enough to have an 80 year-old mother. Now I am wondering how can it be that my daughter has a master's degree? Wasn't it only a few years ago, not decades, that I earned my graduate degree?

Bill and I were recently in Washington, DC for the graduation celebration at George Washington University. Emily's studies are in Museum Education from the Graduate School of Education and Human Development. We were also there 3 years ago when she received her bachelor's degree and I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to attend 2 ceremonies at that university. They do it up right!

This year was especially impressive because Michelle Obama was the commencement speaker. There were at least 25,000 of us on the National Mall straining for a glimpse, but I only managed to see her on the nearby jumbotron. All the same it was an exciting occasion, particularly for those of us who live in the boonies of Maine.

With a few exceptions Emily has not had a lot of family around for the big events in her life. We are a small family, only the 3 of us, with her paternal grandparents deceased, her maternal grandparents in Texas, and a half-sister, Bettina, currently in D.C. But at this celebration we didn't feel small- there were 5 of us cheering her on, screaming when her name was called (despite the prohibition against that), and meeting her professors and classmates. I liked that feeling of family... Bettina and her husband Ilia, boyfriend Jeff... more than just Bill and me, talking, going to the symphony, arguing about politics, eating meals together and supporting our dear Emily.

Congratulations, Emily Kathleen Myers... I am so, so proud of you and love you from the very bottom of my heart. You continue to fill my own life's journey with a deep meaning that otherwise would not be possible, and for that I am forever grateful.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

28. Follow the Leader

Lately my own theological journey has been much on my mind. (I can see the eyes rolling...bear with me.) Having just come thru a busy Lent and Holy Week I've been thinking about what it is I actually believe and at the same time realizing how very far I've come from the ideas of my formative years. As you have read here previously the Southern Baptist church was a big influence in my hometown- I guess one could even say Lubbock was a company town, with the Baptist church the company.

At the ripe old age of 8 I declared myself a sinner and "walked the aisle" to get saved. I remember my baptism clearly (by immersion) because there was a dead June bug in the water. I loved going to Sunday school, memorizing voluminous quantities of scripture and dragging the neighborhood kids to Vacation Bible School in the summer. In high school it only got worse... I sang in 2 church choirs, occasionally played the piano for Sunday night services and went on a few mission trips to save the lost. I even volunteered at a Billy Graham crusade.

I'm reciting this litany of church activities for a reason: I spent a tremendous amount of time at First Baptist Lubbock being indoctrinated with the idea that all people are sinners and on their way to hell. The only way around that is to accept that God sent Jesus to die for our sins.

I am embarrassed to think about that now and to admit my previous zeal for born-again Christianity... at some point I guess I just got fed up with the notion that everyone is inherently bad. I looked around at my family, my friends and teachers, and even myself, and I saw good, kind and generous folks. We were going to hell? One Sunday while in grad school I attended a service at the "progressive" church near the Baylor campus and when the minister began the usual rant I stood up and walked out. Other than funerals and weddings that's the last time I've been in a Southern Baptist church.

It's not that I didn't believe in a higher power or that I didn't want to worship. I just could not believe in a loving God who would condemn humankind to an eternity in hell. So I found other denominations which were not so dogmatic and which allowed and even encouraged me to keep thinking.

During Lent this year I was in a diverse study group at St. Saviour's discussing The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week was written as a response to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. A few years ago I did see that movie: I was curious, plus so many of my acquaintances were asking my opinion that I thought I should see it. It was inflammatory and exaggerated, and I spent at least half the time with my eyes closed.

The Last Week is an account of Jesus' final week in Jerusalem according to the gospel of Mark. Borg and Crossan, both noted Jesus scholars, chose Mark because it was the first gospel written. Using Mark they present a day-by-day account of Jesus' last week and adeptly compare Mark's story to our traditional understanding of Jesus. In particular they depict Jesus not as savior of the world but as a moral hero who protested power without justice and condemned the rich who lack concern for the poor.

I cannot recap here what it took Borg and Crossan an entire book to explain, but the dozen or so in my study group were convinced by their argument. And that is putting it mildly: we were excited to the point of almost becoming evangelistic about what we discovered. The Last Week put into black and white what many of us believed in our hearts and challenged us, in 2010, to take Jesus' example as a guide for our own lives. Do we need this sort of mentor now? Do the powerful ignore justice? Do the rich prey on the poor? One needs only to recall a couple of recent events: the Wall Street debacle and the West Virginia coal mine tragedy.

This compassionate man who advocated for the little guy and challenged the status quo every step of the way is the Jesus I believe in, and I am renewed in my own feeble attempts to follow this leader.

What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

27. Dinner for Six

Another weekend, another dinner party...that's pretty much the way it is around here. While many of you are now firing up the grill and visiting the farmers' market for fresh asparagus and greens, those of us in northern New England are still trying to push winter out the door. Our seasonal spring meals will come in May, if we're lucky.

Last Saturday we had a particularly congenial group of friends both old and new over for dinner. And I took a chance, preparing a recipe that I'd never made before. A few weeks earlier my friend Debby had served it at her husband's birthday party and it was so good that I left the gathering with recipe in hand. It cooks in a crock pot and along about 4:30 on Saturday afternoon I just about panicked, thinking it would not be done in time. I seriously considered dashing to the supermarket for salmon, potatoes and South American asparagus. But I decided to have faith in the instructions and everything came out well.

The crock pot I use belonged to my grandparents and has to be well over 30 years old. It is an unfashionable harvest gold and is quite large. The lid is held together by duct-tape and the exterior is covered in nicks and scars. It is perfectly dependable and I love that it has been passed down thru the generations.

So here's my new dinner party recipe, just right for a cool spring evening in Maine. I served it with Michael's Salad (see No.10, Rx for the Winter Blahs) and a guest brought dessert. Couldn't be easier.

Slow-Cooker Pork and Black Bean Stew (adapted from Real Simple)

2 12-ounce bottles of lager beer

1 tablespoon chopped canned chipotle chilies in adobo sauce, plus 1 tablespoon adobo sauce

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 large onion, chopped

1 pound dried black beans, rinsed and sorted

1 1/2 pounds boneless pork butt (pork shoulder)

kosher salt

In a slow cooker combine beer, 3 cups water, chilies, adobo sauce, cumin, onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir in beans (yes, they will cook in time without soaking) and add pork. Cook on high, covered, until beans are tender and pork pulls apart easily, about 5 to 6 hours. With a fork separate the pork into large pieces.

Now comes the fun part: Divide among individual bowls and top with southwestern-inspired condiments such as cooked corn, salsa, sour cream, guacamole and chopped fresh cilantro. Crumble some tostada chips on top and you've got a great dish. This serves 6 generously and you'll be grateful for any leftovers!

Monday, March 15, 2010

26. Birthday

Last week my mother turned 80. So many feelings have been stirred up because of that...I hardly know where to begin. How can my mother be 80? How is it that I am old enough to have an 80 year-old mother? How much longer do I have with her? What will I be like when I'm 80 and Emily is 50?

First of all, I am so very sorry that I was not there to help her celebrate this notable occasion. Missing this particular birthday ranks high on the list of reasons not to live in Maine. And what would I have done for her? I would have had a party-all of our family that could possibly come and any of her friends, too. A house full of flowers and a marvelous meal. A cake, either homemade or the best one I could afford. For reasons too complicated to go into here, my mother did not have a birthday cake this year and that breaks my heart.

Hidden beneath the smooth veneer of good Southern manners is a somewhat strained relationship between my mother and myself. As a teenager and young adult I did not go to her for advice or to confide, fearing her stern admonition and disapproval. She had her Baptist mind set and did not like my pushing the boundaries. Throughout those years we somehow managed to get along; she, worried all the time and I, craving someone to talk to. In hindsight I'd say we were equally at fault in this impasse, unable to cross the imaginary line keeping us from intimacy and hurting because of it.

Only once in my entire life do I feel she has let me down. Being human, that is unfortunately what I recall foremost rather than the hundreds of times she has stood by me. When I left my first husband and it became clear that we were not going to reconcile, she would not speak to me. I remember calling home and talking first with my dad, and when I asked to speak to Mother, he said She doesn't want to talk to you. She might as well have slapped me in the face. But time intervened, I married a man she has come to adore, and I gave her Emily, her first grandchild. She has been the best grandmother I could possibly imagine and Emily loves her dearly.

Since my brother's death in 2004 and my parents' subsequent grief and illnesses our relationship has changed, and for the better. There have been times of closeness that would not have been possible earlier. My mother's intense desire to always do the right thing and make the right decision has been tempered by tragic experience and unwelcome accidents. We have been able to talk about death, religion, homosexuality and a host of other topics that once would have been off-limits. To my surprise and despite my left-leaning tendencies I believe she has come to see me as a wise woman and actively seeks my advice and counsel.

Sometimes, when I look in the mirror I am caught off-guard because...yes, you guessed it...I see my mother. But all in all I am grateful for that because she has taught me so much about the importance of love in this life: loving a spouse, loving a child, loving friends and loving being alive.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

25. Sabbatical

For the past 4 weeks I have been on sabbatical. Although I like my church job very much, indeed even thrive on it, having this much free time from the ever-recurring Sunday morning has been a tremendous gift. A little breathing space, a chance to step back and think, some time to see friends- these and more have been most welcome.

Somehow I missed the idea of resting during a sabbatical and instead am hard at work. Most mornings I have been driving 17 miles to St. Francis church in Blue Hill to practice on their fine Wilhelm organ. And on Fridays I've made the 2 1/2 hour trek to Brunswick for a lesson with my teacher Ray. The practice time has been pure bliss-although I normally practice quite a bit each week it's always with the goal of having something ready for an upcoming Sunday. For the past few years I've wanted to learn some specific new repertoire and have been frustrated in my attempts to do that. So after careful thought I decided to focus on the following: Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G Major (the most challenging piece I've ever played), Vierne's lovely, evocative Clair de Lune, and two chorale preludes by Brahms, O Welt, ich muss dich lassen and Herlich tut mich erfreuen. I have made great progress on these works but likewise have discovered that I must keep them at the top of my priority list for some time if I'm ever to perform them successfully.

Not having to play on Sunday I have taken the opportunity to attend other churches, mostly Episcopal, in the area. Last weekend a friend of Bill's was visiting and when I told him I was on sabbatical he commented Great! Then you can sleep in tomorrow! I replied that no, I was planning to go to church, and he looked baffled. So I explained that I wanted to hear my colleagues play and see what creative things other parishes were doing with liturgy. While that may be true, it is not the complete truth. I am actually going to church on my days off because I want to. I need that time of quiet, of getting away from my own concerns, of being in the spiritual presence of something greater than myself...I need to worship.

I will be "back on the bench" this week and I am ready. I have missed playing that spine-tingling postlude, registering the hymns in a way that brings out the text, setting the last note of the prelude in just the right place. And I look forward to seeing my choir, with their eager faces full of anticipation and trust.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

24. Reading List

For weeks I have been thinking about this list of the best books I read in 2009. Should I just include the top 5? Will anyone actually look at the entire list if it's long? Who am I to voice an opinion about these books? My reading got off to a shaky start last year; I read a few truly mediocre things and wondered what was going on, even thinking that the craft of writing was going downhill. But then after a few weeks I hit my stride and haven't stopped since. Already in 2010 I've read something notable and have a huge pile of promising suspects next to my bed.

So here's my lengthy list of favorites for last year, mostly in the order I read them. And I would love to hear your comments on these books, too, if you are familiar with them.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Petterson is Norwegian and his description of landscape is hauntingly beautiful. The main character is a retired man who returns home to live out his years in a remote cabin. Flashbacks of his younger days with his father are interspersed with adjusting to life alone.

The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss. An independent, go-getter young woman makes her living breaking horses in Oregon during World War I.

The Tenth Muse-My Life in Food by Judith Jones. Jones, editor for Julia Child, writes a chatty, but inspiring book about the importance of good food. I particularly liked her admonition to cook well, even if it's just for one.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. There has been so much said about this book; what can I possibly add? That in my last days I don't want to look back and see that I've squandered day after day. I will read this again.

Seeking Peace by Mary Pipher. Pipher is best known for her Reviving Ophelia, a book I didn't much like. But this one is full of wisdom for a woman my age. She is a stunningly compassionate and astute writer.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. A fictional biography of Laura Bush. Not being a fan of Mrs. Bush , I absolutely DID NOT want to read this book! But a choir member thrust it into my hands and said You have got to read this. She was right: I couldn't put it down and likewise learned something about seeing a story from more than one side.

Appassionata by Eva Hoffman. The title refers to Beethoven's piano sonata of the same name and well describes the temperaments of the two main characters. Isabel, an accomplished pianist, begins a tumultuous affair during a concert tour with Anzor, a Chechen man. Along the way she begins to question the importance and significance of her chosen career and wonders does making music do any good for the world?

Where Dreams Die Hard by Carl Stowers. A small, sweet story of one year in the life of the 6-man football team in Penelope, Texas. I know something about this town, as my first husband was pastor of the Baptist church there in 1977 and I, of course, played the piano for services.

Drinking the Rain by Alix Kates Shulman. Compelling memoir of a woman finding herself in her 50's, after raising a family and discarding a bad marriage. Her later memoir, To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed was on my list last year.

The Whole World Over by Julia Glass. A good, old-fashioned novel with believable, quirky characters to love, cry over and encourage. Much of the story takes place in Santa Fe and I could taste the green chilies and feel the unrelenting southwestern sun.

A Happy Marriage by Rafael Iglesias. The saga of a marriage, not always or conventionally happy, from the first meeting to final goodbye. The book alternates between the couple's last few years, as he cares for his dying wife, and the story of their courtship, marrying, raising children and negotiating the hurdles of life. You'll shed tears over this one.

Why Religion Matters by Huston Smith. This venerable author explains just why religion does matter to our hungry, suffocated souls. The finitude of mundane existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely. Built into the human makeup is a longing for a "more" that the world of everyday experience cannot requite. Not an easy read, but worth the struggle.

That's it. Twelve notable and worthy books. Happy Reading.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

23. Cooking with Christie

New Year's Eve has always been an overrated holiday in my book. For years I ignored it by hosting a big open house on January 1, complete with a pot of black-eyed peas for good luck, of course. With 30 or so friends arriving on our doorstep that day, there was no way I could go out and party the night before. But more recently Bill and I have been going to Connecticut for the holiday to visit our friends Christie and Jay and I'm learning how to celebrate in style. Despite having to dodge snowstorms on each trip, I like this new tradition and hope it will continue.

Christie and I met in 1985 when our babies were baptized together in Dallas. Subsequently both of our families moved to New England and even though we live 400 miles apart our friendship has prospered. I-95 from Maine to Connecticut has become commonplace for both of us- no map needed. Up until their college years Christopher or Emily would usually be in tow and we even stopped for a visit on our way to Emily's first semester at GW.

Very early in our friendship Christie and I found we were both interested in cooking good, healthy and at times unusual food. We discovered the wisdom of Jane Brody together and have searched out many a recipe containing olives or capers. My cookbooks are filled with notations such as made this with Christie or recommended by Christie and I have a large pile of recipe clippings that she's sent me from the New York Times. Each of our visits has been a chance to experiment with something new or show off a recent success.

This New Years was no exception. On December 30 Bill and I headed down the highway to spend the holiday with Christie and her husband Jay. When we walked into the house savory rosemary pecans and spicy olives were awaiting us, with sherry and white wine to drink. Before much time had passed Christie and I began to discuss our New Year's Eve menu. We tossed around a few ideas and looked thru cookbooks and clippings. And we came up with a fabulous meal to celebrate the old and anticipate the new. Here's the menu:

Chicken with Capers and Lemons

Roasted Carrots and Parsnips

Green Goddess Salad

Strawberries and Pecans Flambe'

And of course, French champagne. Make that 2 bottles.

Below you'll find some recipes. As many of us enter the gloomy, bitter, dark months of winter, I recommend inviting a few friends over to share this meal, guaranteed to chase away the doldrums. Happy New Year!

Chicken with Capers and Lemons (serves 4)

Roasted Lemons:

3 medium lemons, scrubbed, thinly sliced and seeded

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/8 teaspoon sea salt or more to taste

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and arrange the lemons in a single layer. Brush lemons with oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast until slightly dry and beginning to turn brown around the edges, about 30 minutes.


Boneless, skinless, thinly sliced chicken breast halves, about 1 pound

1/8 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup all purpose flour

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 1/4 cups fat free, lower sodium chicken broth

3/4 cup white wine

2 tablespoons rinsed and drained capers

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, divided

Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour to coat both sides. Shake off excess flour. In a large nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add chicken and cook until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Add chicken broth and wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits. Cook until liquid has thickened, about 5 to 8 minutes, turning chicken halfway.

Add roasted lemons, capers, butter, 2 tablespoons parsley and more pepper if desired. Simmer until butter melts and chicken is cooked through, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter, sprinkle with remaining parsley and serve.

Green Goddess Salad (we used a recipe from the New York Times, available online)

Sauteed Pecans with Strawberries Flambe' (from Bragg Pecans in Hondo, Texas) serves 4

1/3 cup pecan or other nut oil

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup brandy

1 cup fresh pecans

1 pound fresh strawberries, washed, hulled and sliced

1 quart vanilla ice cream

Saute pecans in oil with the brown sugar until sugar is dissolved and begins to bubble. Add strawberries and warm through. Add brandy, ignite, stand back and SCREAM! Allow alcohol to completely burn off and serve over ice cream.