Before the Time of Vespers

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(Image from La Collectionneuse)

She had gone out one afternoon and come back another woman.  She’d cut her hair. He’d followed her into her apartment, then to her bathroom where she drew a brush through what was left. Dean tried not to look directly at it. Instead he studied her face as she talked while his peripheral vision gave him a picture. He’d become attached to the length of bright auburn. It was as if a lovely tree had lost its final fiery adornment in the span of a few hours. Now Kelsey stood there in all her compactness, looking spare, arrestingly so, and more self-determined than ever.

Valiant was a word that came to him, he didn’t know why. Valiant and maddeningly attractive as she talked about her decision to have it shorn off.

But Dean felt alarmed by her action, as though she’d told him she had decided to become an entomologist or drive all the way to Nova Scotia alone. It didn’t make sense to him. She knew it affected him–she tracked his reactions like a fox, that one–but kept on talking, a jaunty lilt to her speech.

“I’ve been thinking about this a long time. I’m drawn to that life and want to explore the possibilities. Before its too late, you know? I need to simply and cutting my hair is a start. I’m thrilled with it. I wanted to tell you all this later but you barged in and here we are …you always have thought my space was semi-public. Or partially yours.”

Kelsey chortled, ruffling her cap of hair.

“I was surprised when it sort of looked like yours! Funny, huh? Modified pixie, the stylist said. Not sure how I feel about that. Well, Dean-o, imitation is the best flattery. But look, the point I’m trying to make is that I want to discover what will happen if I…”

Her voice faded even though her lips kept moving on and on. Dean leaned against her bathroom wall and thought of reasons he ought to pay attention. That voice was like water falling over him, soothing yet powerful as the music she made.

He first liked her face because it reminded him of someone he knew before, a girl he used to chase around the fields in Iowa. He hadn’t imagined being a dancer before ten. He was broad of shoulder even as a toddler, and was husky, strong as an ox, his dad bragged. Dean shrugged and smiled obligingly. His mother knew something else was fated as he grew tall, lean and dreamy-eyed. Hannah, the girl he thought of when he met Kelsey, heard his secret hope of dancing and murmured it was strange; he was a third generation farm boy. They parted ways shortly after.

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              (Image Courtesy of Tom Curtis/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The two shared the same small, pouty mouth even when happy but Kelsey had a laugh that was a shock of  delight. Her eyes were close to sapphire blue in strong light. Hannah’s were middling grey, like her, somehow.

Kelsey had determined what he felt for her way before he knew it. She’d kept it playful. They’d been living in the same apartment building for a year and becoming friends was so easy he felt right at home with her. Then he began to feel a shift.

“I see you hanging over your balcony when I go to work,” she’d said, “and you might as well shout out your intentions to the neighborhood.”

He’d been irritated. “What intentions would those be, know-it-all?”

She’d blinked a few times, her jewel eyes flashing across the hallway. “Really? Could anyone mistake your looks for mere platonic wishfulness? Let me get a camera.”

She’d gotten her Nikon and started to shoot away, defining something though he wasn’t sure what. Then they were side by side, his arm around her shoulders. She deleted them all except for one, with their foreheads together, eye-to-eye, a big hug keeping them close. He’d pulled her closer.

“I’ve got to get to the studio,” he’d said, “but send me that!”

Later, when it was closing in on midnight, he checked his email and there it was. They looked bright and close as tulips in a vase. He was looking at her as though at the sun. He was going to be distracted for awhile, he’d thought ruefully. But it got harder, not better or more exciting or fulfilling. He danced every day and auditioned in between and when he saw finally saw her she was working on music history or composing or singing some song. He’d sit on the floor outside her door and listen to her sing. The landlord saw him and asked if he was in the doghouse. Dean got up without a word and entered his apartment. She never knew he did that. She didn’t know a lot of things. But she did know how much suffering his body endured, how auditions robbed him of sleep and what his favorite classic movies were. And how he berated, perhaps hated, his competition. She was patient with that. She “got” him while most did not.

Kelsey knew he wanted to be with her. She clarified her viewpoint by calling him “my best friend since seventeen when I shared my love for both Hesse and Kierkegaard with Marie Solis.” He was often thanked for being there when she was driven crazy by the second movement of a musical score she was writing. Or when she had vicious headaches that only eased with a head and shoulder massage. Dean was entrusted with tales about her parents that confounded him and he told stories about rural life that scared her. He thought they’d crossed into an unguarded place and it felt better than most things in his life. He imagined more.

ID-100186891             (Image Courtesy of Pat138241/Free DigitalPhotos.net)

But she didn’t love him. Not like that.

Kelsey paused now; it seemed she was waiting for an answer or question. Dean leaned toward her so he could gaze into the three way mirror. They looked back from three separate pictures that appeared identical at first, but then Dean had the unnerving sensation they were different, and turned toward him with twelve questioning eyes. He recognized fear. What had she just said?

He stepped away and clamped his lower lip with his upper and breathed in through his nose. Exhale slowly. Be calm.

“What are you telling me?” he asked. “Did you say something about moving or did I imagine it? Is that what the hair thing is about? Women cut their hair when they are about to do something drastic, my dad used to say. So–changing things up or what?” He crossed his arms over his chest.

Kelsey sat on the three-legged yellow stool by the tub.

“Yes. I said: I’m going to stay in a monastery for three months. I want to study the music. The chants. Everything. I need solitude, to be fully integrated into music. I want to compose something much, much deeper. And God has always been a burning spot deep within. You know this, or some of it…”

Dean dropped his arms and slid to the floor opposite her.

“Hang on a minute! Monastery? With monks?”

“Benedictine monks.”

He peered at her from under bushy eyebrows. “You want to be a religious person, like a nun, someday?”

Kelsey’s laugh pinged off the tiled walls. “No, I want to experience music in a different way. Sacred music has its own forms and delivery. It would be as if you decided to take a break from jazz dance and studied modern dance, maybe. A different path of creative development. For me, spiritual development, too.”

Dean flexed his feet and watched her ruffle her hair. She was still breathtaking to him,  a woman who had ways and ideas that stunned him. He was surrounded by vanity and ego and aggressive competition. Yet he loved what he did. It had called to him  just as he music had called to her. And now it was taking her to a different level, a divergent path. He felt his core contract; he wanted to say it aloud.

“Have I told you how much–”

But Kelsey started to hum, then sing a wordless melody. He closed his eyes as a song took shape, lifting to the ceiling, dancing on the walls, reflecting off the mirrors and making its way across the distance between them. Into his chest. It was like a journey with prayer and yearning intertwined. It was her language; he listened and tried to hear her. It was like the ring of crystal. Pure. True.

He held her afterwards, calm only on the outside. Then she drifted to the living room and stood with her face to the window. When Dean left it was getting dark. He had to accept what was, didn’t he? He needed to walk, let his arms swing and his head empty out. He entered the park where they liked to picnic. If he had turned around he would have seen Kelsey in the distance leaning over the balcony, her gesturing hands saying wait, her face blurred by twilight but he was carried by the rhythm of his feet. The tempo: a brisk, solitary dance.
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Why I Love to Whistle: A History

Barefoot Prodigy by Martha Moore                                (Barefoot Prodigy by Martha Moore)

Most people came from musical families; I knew this was fact when I was a child. They were my neighbors, schoolmates and friends. I was just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students in my Midwest town’s public education music program. It encouraged students who tested well on standardized music tests in the fourth grade to take up an instrument. My father developed and oversaw the program, so I was glad I passed. I looked forward to participating in school and learning at home.

I was the last of five children to coach. I had tried violin before kindergarten. Though I liked it, I wanted to play what my sisters played: the cello. It just sounded better than any other instrument I had heard, except for the trumpet with its sparkling cheer or melancholic sweep of sounds. Since dad was known as “a string man” I surmised the trumpet would not be the best choice. I considered the French horn, as well, but never mentioned it; it seemed too formal somehow. The trumpet appealed to the dreaminess of a properly raised child straining to be free (and later jazz drew me like honey draws bees). I must have heard it played in that style on the few records of big band music we listened to occasionally. Dad had played lots of instrument as a younger man, including the saxophone and clarinet–he liked reed instruments. Brass seemed less favored; the violin and viola were his chosen instruments.

As I worked at learning piano as well (I sought minimal skills, enough to I could justify making up songs on the baby grand), I took up the commanding cello. I fell in love with its stirring elasticity, its resonant notes responding to the briefest pressure from my bow and fingers. Its power startled me. Sometimes I felt it took over, leaving me breathless, anxious to catch up–to what? What did all that music mean? It was a mystery what could happen with practice and critical feedback and more sweating over tedious exercises that led me to sonatas and concertos. The years brought private lessons, innumerable performances in orchestras, solos at concerts and competitions, summer music camps. I played the harp for a year or two, but I wanted to do with the cello what my oldest sister did. She would go on to become a professional cellist (as a female cousin did, as well) though I had a suspicion by fifteen it was not to be. My middle sister had ditched cello for bassoon; it was the perfect choice for her. My brothers? They played violin, viola, clarinet, oboe, flute, saxophone between them. Everyone sang, but have patience with me on that one. They became paid musicians as well, eventually.

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But ambitions aside, music just belonged to me, and I, to it. All of us lived our lives imbued with its powerful force as well as a responsibility of making music and making it well. The family DNA supplied musical scores and an impulse to master instruments. We were the proverbial ducks born to swim, submerged at birth then quickly floating our way through music-making, music history, music theory. Except for my mother. She championed us all, hummed along, played a bit here and there on the piano. Her pleasure in our music and the applause of audiences offset my father’s critical analyses. It took all this to do well, then excel.

But although the cello found, loved me, even let me romance it back, all this time I was also doing something else, in private and on stages. I was singing. There you have it: three words I spent over five hundred words not writing. I have thought about this post ever since I mentioned elsewhere that when I write poetry it feels as though I am writing songs. It took me back to all this music business, the singing issue.

Try to imagine that singing is speech: you open your mouth and songs slip out as the native language. To give any other a whirl feels unfamiliar, even clumsy. Life is not a musical, exactly, but it is clearly something to be sung about. I wanted to sing all day long, in school, on the ice rink, in the pool, at the desk where there was homework waiting. Of course I sang at church but also while riding my bike, walking on the street. I needed to sing past bedtime when mother called up the stairs to turn out the light. I didn’t want to obey, could not. Songs were happening and they were not done with me. They were musical poems that lingered, danced, crested on words, a language that sang out, and my body and soul were the instruments. I would whisper the melodies if needed. And in the morning when I awakened, the song awaited me like a lovely puzzle, a tantalizing desire. A blessing. Sometimes I would take it to the piano when all the house was empty or strum my guitar. And singing on stage felt no different from singing from our maple’s treetop. It gave me profound joy like little else, opened up the universe, connected me to life’s deep soulfulness. It felt natural.

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But it ended, which brings us closer to the whistling part.

It was a gradual separation that began in earnest after sexual and other assaults were survived, substances used to endure the fall-out. Finally and also importantly, time constraints developed along with unexpected choices. I grew up and married at twenty, but not to a musician–that happened much later. I attended college, studied art, psychology, sociology and writing, not music. Not being fully engaged with my passion, it became neglected. Or I neglected it because it was too close to what mattered most, so far from my reach I felt it leaving me daily. It all resulted in a terrible ache, a longing for something that felt no longer possible to recapture, refine. Rather than feel as though I was a walking wound again, I left music. It was that or try to find it in fragments, in random pieces of time and space. I have a practical streak. I turned away, went on with my life.

I did continue to play my cello off and on when alone but my now-untried skills failed to uphold what my ear needed to hear. I sang to myself, to the babies that were rocked with lullabies, who danced to music made up together. It was there, the music, all that time, like a fragrance that pervades the atmosphere but faintly. Occasionally I harmonized softly with my second husband, in the privacy of home. But it had changed, and my voice had been transformed from soprano to alto from having too many cigarettes and drinks. Life can challenge dreams; we all have them, often change or lose them. For much of my family, the music played on. For me, it quieted, then was finally silenced in one regard: I could no longer sing. This is reality. I don’t kid myself even though I do let my voice out for a phrase or two in church. Even joined a couple choirs years back and found it physically and emotionally taxing to create the necessary sounds. I put it back in a secret place where it hibernates, having forgotten what it used to do.

But wait, there is still music that surfaces. I could and can whistle. No  other other animal can do it though there must be approximations. Whistling is undervalued and overlooked. Its wordlessness makes a case for relationship to instrumental music, my opinion. I have heard people whistle from exuberance or sorrow, offer an aria or a pop tune or something that makes no sense at all but is catchy, at least for the whistler. It can be as impressive an art as any other. There are competitions for whistlers, I have found. But kids can do it in time. I am no expert, but I can still purse my lips and blow as though on, say, a trumpet’s mouthpiece, yet the instrument is my own body. Like singing, yes? The notes are created by altering the shape of the mouth inside and out, by regulating the air from diaphragm to chest to throat and sinus cavities then out. A cinch. Before long, I may be working up a C major or D minor scale, then catching the drift of a tune, resilient, sweeping across space. Whistling may be cheap, even proletarian entertainment, but it is its own reward and then some. It makes people happy, including me.

The whistler’s music, for me, can be a generous smattering of auditory star dust that glimmers and rises on a whim. Islands of notes erupting from a landscape that feels like home. Sun dapples and rain splatters of sound that make me smile, remember. When whistling, I know I have forgotten nothing of what music means to me–I’m not talking about my taste preferences or how it relates to my philosophical or spiritual ideologies–but what it means to my innermost being. What I cannot sing today, I can whistle with precision and subtlety, a dash of friskiness. Maybe one day it will be a prelude to something that can flower with more attention. Nobody’s testing me for virtuosity. I don’t have to win a prize anymore.

article-new_ehow_images_a01_uq_ce_teach-child-whistle-800x800Classical? Modern jazz? The old standards? A favorite number from musicals or a pop tune? Try me! But it is likely you will have to catch me unaware. I don’t perform for anyone but myself and that’s finally good enough for me.

(Note: A print of the painting at the top of this post hung in my childhood bedroom and, later, in my parents’ den.)

Recreating the World a Little at a Time

The room was densely packed with audience members who rustled in their seats, scanned the stage and entrances in anticipation, studied their programs. They chattered with one another and waved at people leaning shoulder-to-shoulder against the walls.

A major event was about to commence: Grandparents and Other Special Guests Day. I, a grandmother to two of the children in this day of performances, was there, right next to other family members. I had been looking forward to watching Avery and Asher share the creative endeavors their classes had worked on.

But I wasn’t ready for what ensued at their arts focus elementary school. My expectations  for the program were moderate; I was primarily there, after all, to see my grandchildren. But it was far from being a brief recital of ho-hum numbers or a jumble of slapdash acts. The children and teachers had carefully prepared an array of fascinating pieces. Each showcased a group of exuberant kids from kindergarten through fifth grade.

There were yoga positions posed to a captivating spoken poem(kindergarteners performing; grandson Asher included). Large portraits of family members were drawn by some students during the show and later exhibited on stage. Music from the 1960s was the background for second and third graders as they hula-hooped, “watusied, twisted, and monkeyed” their way across the stage–all in sync with the catchy beats. Boys and girls of all sizes and shapes designed complicated sculptural forms in response to electronic world beat music. Tumblers and jugglers entertained with their skills. Little children shape-shifted into spiders, iguanas and mosquities. And there was choral music shared, including my nine year old granddaughter’s chorus. It ended with an old bluesy piece that was refreshed by youthful twists. Avery’s face reflected the pleasure of submerging herself in song.

And in truth, the plain, large room pulsed with joy. We all clapped and tapped our feet along with those kids. Those kids got standing ovations. No one politely listened and then sneaked away when their family member was done performing.  Like them, I was rooting for every hard-working student who took a chance, explored inventive uses of space, form, sound and time, and who then found satisfaction and happiness. They discovered freedom sprang from imagination, especially with diligent practice. They had, in a word, fun.

We were reminded that children, when allowed the chance, are fearless creators. Their innate gift for invention breaks loose as though waiting for just such an opportunity. And they become themselves more fully. They search for new horizons. They soon discover that success can be as simple as finding and holding a note, letting a line zigzag its way across paper, or allowing their bodies to morph into something new and fine.

When the final act left the stage, the adults were reluctant to leave. Being a grandparent felt fully like the privledge it is. People chatted and milled about; then we followed our students to their classrooms to enjoy more of what they had to share. I studied the program and learned that this marvelous school had a Run for the Arts to obtain more monetary support, was selling T-shirts and sweatshirts to raise money, and also took donations. I bought two of the T-shirts for my grandchildren and will write a check soon. No child should be without the opportunity to experience the arts.

Many years ago, at Eastlawn Elementary in my hometown, I enjoyed an educational experience now nearly unheard of. I enjoyed the arts as freely as I enjoyed the gym,  school library, playground, and classroom with its more conventional studies. There were plays, dances, concerts to perform in. There were stories and poems to write and read aloud. I waited each day for a fine or performing arts class.

One year I decided to be a firebird for a school performance. My mother and I designed and sewed my costume, a divine outfit of orange and crimson chiffon. I waited stage right as the opening bars of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” swept across the stage and over the audience. My heartbeat was taking the lead and my stomach was quivering jelly. But I stepped out and whirled across the stage on cue. I was lifted up by that music, the flaming skirt floating, then whipping around me. My feet made their own way and my arms rose up to the sky beyond. I forgot I was just a nine year old girl. In an instant, I was a rare and vibrant bird, and the music electrified. I danced as though it was the only thing I knew or needed to know. Transformation occurred without my even knowing how it happened. I was a bird, mysterious and earthbound, seeking flight. The spotlight followed me as I chased the notes acround the stage. The music called to me and I answered. It was as though I had crossed into a new country and and I followed my body across the border, to the finish of the journey. Sweat rolled down my back and a smile broke over my face as applause erupted. My cloth feathers stuck to my legs but I felt I could have flown right out of the building. And in the audience below was my mother and other family members, neighbors and friends. 

I felt right with the world, and happy. The doors of the universe slid open a bit. There was a bit of heaven right on earth and its name was clearly Art, although to me (as to the children today), it was just having a wonderful, magical time.

                                                         Love to Asher and Avery