Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Sting’s and My Christmas Season

Most of my days are classical music days. It flows in my blood as my family’s tapestry is woven with classical musicians; I have sung and played it, as well. There’s no escaping my enduring love of it: the stately, rich cohesion of many parts, its thrilling or delicate compositions with such variety of instruments, voices. And sacred music and hymns this time of year speak to me, yes. But there is also jazz, another mainstay of my life, a musical form that depends on a precise complexity, as well, sparked with glory of innovation. There is a fun infusion of it even in holiday tunes. And I have to admit there is very little music I don’t value. Such an abundance of choices!

Lately I have rummaged through my CD collection–I’m one who still plays them–and listening, as is typical, to more seasonal music including Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and their crowd. Singing their hearts out–they make me happy, just listening to such smooth and lilting tones. It makes me long for a stage and a swirly dress with high-heeled dance shoes, so I can drape myself over the piano when done dancing…

But today I chose another album; it weaves another enchantment entirely. It drew me as I sat waiting for words to settle and unfurl inside me, readied at my desk.

The music of Sting is emitted from my stereo, the album being “If On A Winter’s Night”. The minor keys move through the space, through me. It’s raining here, the fall of water a quietly intrusive hum under his singing. Loads of raindrops with theirs rhythmic shifting over heavy pine tree branches, silently streaming down windows. The geraniums are soaking in drenched, blustery air. The squirrels, chubby with good food scavenged, aren’t racing as usual, but hiding somewhere better. I miss our birds who today also seek refuge, fine wings tucked close.

I get up from my chair, dance slowly to the tune, steps and arms almost courtly, a drum resonant in the winding tune. Sting’s unusual tenor moves about in a tender, plaintive way. The traditional British Isles offerings are interpreted in his style and it suits me today: cool yet dense, smoothly unspooling, slightly melancholic. It travels from his hillocks and valleys to this woman in Oregon. It captures me as ordinary speech cannot. As do the moments of warmth with which he infuses the old songs– despite the greyness of the wintry mix of his album. I am easily pulled from this desk by closing my eyes.

Yes…I am leaning at a long wooden common table, on a bench with a bunch of others, a huge stone fireplace aflame with crackling fire, the room shadowed and yet so warm. We’re witness to and sharing poetic tales beloved by musicians and us. The room is close: a whiff of sweat, pungency of firewood, drinks in hand and the cooking from the kitchen has slowed a bit as cook and helpers come out to hear the music. It’s music that’s going on. It’s the core of the heart for now.

As I open my eyes, it occurs to me this music I’ve long enjoyed makes a nice analogy for this year, as well as the holiday season, at least for me. It is a unique album. It requires close listening and thinking about, for me, and still the songs reflect much of what has been and shall be. Love and loss, heartache and liberation, fears and wonders, babies and creatures hushed. Sting brings me to today’s writing.

There is a differentness of these past months days and nights. There has become a new rendition of human life pushing against dramatic constraints and then, an incremental yielding for most. I seek gentling warmth that is still is lined with an overall bittersweetness. I note a dawning appreciation of what may be discovered within new formats and boundaries. The usual manner of living has been upended, so I have had the choice of either despising it or understanding it all the best I can. Then accepting it even when not understood. Discovering the value of restriction is a challenge. This is not a new idea for me; I’ve lived in other situations that demand a more circumscribed life. I have literally been in situations where little movement is allowed. And there can be meaning and worth in some of that, perhaps oddly.

There is the simplification of daily agendas. I’m not up and running about in the same way as before COVID-19. So, less distractions. They can easily arise with more geographical movements, the body more free, a wider choice of activities. The hours flee–and before I often felt: look how much is undone! Not so much now, though there seems always more to address. Especially if one has children at home: more needs and chores. But my family has all grown up. Now these hours open up now like a long horizon, and I can paint or impress upon it most anything I want–even with several clear limitations. I don’t mean I love all this, but it has narrowed my attentions in a constructive way, too. The boundaries in which we have been living gave rise to a slower, more orderly manner of doing things. A greater meditative tone, if we recognize opportunities.

It can take not only adaptability but discipline to cope with a pandemic or other catastrophic change. A commitment to staying safe and helping others stay well, too. But beyond that critical measure in a time of upheaval and stress, time is still colored and molded by whatever else I feel and do with it. I have greater blocks of time and solitude to create. A chance to define and refine relationships better. And I have an important reason for being more outdoors. I luxuriate in the gifts of nature; being outside saves me during the worst of emotional times, and expands the best. Now, it is as if someone said, “Amid the deprivations and worry, here you go–please avail yourself fully of spiritual and physical sustenance.” And so I do. Not a day goes by without a chance to embrace virtues of nature’s earthy yet heavenly ways.

Even the cooling to chilling onslaughts of winter rains. Like today. I had tasks to do, then writing. But I stepped onto the balcony and…breathed in, out. Piney/mossy-enriched dirt and air scents. And then I saw millions beads of crystalline water adorning both stripped branches, heavier green boughs. What are those tiny jewels? Heard the call of a crow. What message goes there? Breeze gusted my hair across cooled skin. What is today’s wind song? In the far distance beyond the screen of rainfall lie hills, mountain peaks. What secrets of aged earth live and root there? It was a few moments of quiet joy. This earth which is not always easy to live on… it gives well and it takes harshly, we think. But what supreme mystery and wonder. What purity of being. The Creator: manifest in the creation right here for us.

The discipline I’ve rallied the past months derives from a significant store developed over a lifetime. I was taught very young that good things come from labor towards competence and possible mastery. Wanting and getting are two different things. Meeting one’s goals takes devotion, with an expected amount of trial and error. One must try, one must work and so I did. Developing simple habits– attention, well-used times of practice–to what lay before me aided in moving forward, and took me closer to learning what truly mattered to me. This also bred patience, which only means waiting–whether actively or passively–in a relatively calm manner for an event or its results. Things will happen; they happen as they will.

Not wanting to be self-deluded, I realized that though I may help determine many outcomes, this did not mean all. But other outcomes can be useful. Maybe surprisingly better. Not all solutions can be anticipated or even understood entirely. This isn’t easy for someone who is driven to gain solid knowledge, who relentlessly seeks the truth and its finer details. This happens even in the simplest life matters for me. But it is possible to accept outcomes not desired, scenarios not easy. I need to accept things that have finality. But acceptance can be helpful no matter what is at hand–even as I also can find ways to work with it. Bending limits the potential for breakage, after all. Then, in addition to this methodical way of approaching “living life on life’s terms”, is my natural and opposite impulse to live passionately and deeply. And that is what bubbles up–sooner or later– during hard times. My love affair with life hasn’t fizzled, it’s ongoing so why not bring it to the fore in the rougher times? It requires of me to remove preconceptions of what I think matters. And what I think is still mine to enjoy.

Does reading an interesting book matter? Does lighting a candle at mealtime matter? Humming along with or breaking into song when I hear music that enlivens me? Dancing across the room when I get up t o greet the day? Smelling lavender in the vase on a shelf, dabbing perfume for no good reason behind my ears? Siting on a mossy rock and watching the chickadees and juncos? Yes. Hearing the twins’ little voices grow bigger? Yes, please. Marc reading aloud from a book? Savoring a slice of juicy pear? All of it. Every day. And the rest which of the things I need to do: Writing poetry and stories. Taking pictures. Praying for the sick and sorrowful. Writing letters– or sending cards, just because. Seeking greater understanding of relationships. Reaching out to extended family and friends not close by. Greeting neighbors, even when they look down. Leaning more about societal upheavals and how to be a help. I care about human life, so I need to keep acting like it.

The real constraints I put on myself are not much due to the pandemic. It worries and frustrates me, as it does others. Mostly, I miss closer–actual–contact with loved ones, as people do even more these days. Yet the one thing that can trip me up is my mental framework. Sometimes, long-rooted health issues do, but so far I can push or glide onward. In the end I must overcome any vestige of unwillingness to seek what awakens me, moves me. Whatever motivates me to greater insights. I already know I can make do with less, just as I’ve made do with more if nearly overwhelmed by that, too.

It’s a matter of working with what is at hand, figuring it out. Inventiveness is a prime human feature; we are all gifted with it. Why do I-/we ever sell myself/ourselves short?

This Christmas is, for most of us, seemingly less than accustomed to experiencing. It is unusual in terms of carefree roaming in and out of festive shops; in giving of gifts personally, or gathering with others in our homes; sharing convivial feasts; and sharing prayers and praise in celebration if one is Christian, as am I. The candlelight service will be terribly missed; it is a lifelong tradition to raise my lit candle in the sanctuary of darkness with others as we sing “Silent Night.” Yet I also miss conversations with shopkeepers in brightly decorated stores. Strangers’ well wishes at a coffee shop as I slurp my peppermint mocha– without needing a mask, six feet apart from them.

I began this essay stating Sting’s album seems a metaphor for these times in my life, specifically for this Christmas season. His fine group’s performance, his singing of traditional seasonal songs with their own twist on them captivates me. So it comes down to this: Like the music I enjoyed today, I am trying to honor what is good and true of the past, engage with the present creatively, share appreciation for whatever gifted moments arrive, and accept that melancholy may tinge any triumphant moments. This is not essentially different from other years, in a sense. But this December 2020 asks me to glean even more carefully any useful remainders of life’s offerings, to well sort whatever is enhancing and enriching from the dross. To reap fulfillment of this moment, then give the best away. And I know there is ever much to learn. More to enjoy. Plenty to share from the soul’s stirrings.

The rain has suddenly slowed to a stop. The night has begun to spread its magic over the woods. The candles are glowing, casting changing shadows over walls and ceiling. Quietness envelops me, another kindness, now that the lovely music has ended. I am glad I heard Sting winter music today and evening. And blessed to be sitting with a good peace this moment. May there be greater peace for all beyond this room.

And meantime, I’ll be listening to Handel’s “Messiah” and more exquisite–or fun–music soon. May you find your musical sustenance for the holidays.

Monday’s Meander: Where to Go with Sorrow? To Snow and Candles

My nephew, Reid, died the first week of December. It was several years ago but once more he appears in the middle of my mind. His living and dying: both were hard, both perhaps longer than he wanted. I will never know. In truth, I understood him less than I imagined though I felt his burdens’ weight as I talked with him. He took refuge in my house awhile after one hospital stay; I took him to 12 step meetings. He was carried along by and troubled by life –powerful emotions, a puzzle of thoughts, and demons of addiction–until he was in his forties. He had a passion for life–music, skateboarding, movies, reading. Much more, and so many things unknown to me. I loved him as I knew how; we all loved him, yes. But despair can outweigh all the rest. Reid plunged from a bridge into the swift Willamette River, into silent darkness of a rainy night that was moving toward pale morning.

Really, I wanted to share, as usual, outdoorsy rambles, attractive pictures. But I find I cannot. Instead, I have found a few winter pictures, quite unlike the views outside my windows right now–green, damp, sunny to partly sunny with more rain on the wind. But they feel right: snow is quintessential December in my dreams. I burrow in this month between outings. And candlelight, oh, the flames tinting the greyness orange and yellow. It is a gentled magic, steady but mutable, rich and clarifying.

There is something about snow and candles that move me in unique ways. Still me. Then rouse me.

December’s onset brings Reid back to me a little. (It also, conversely, brings to me my mother’s December birth date: juxtaposition of death and birth dates is like seeing two birds of different colors and flight patterns move across the sky.). I can recall his smile when he was convivial, happy, at times–for a time. His eyes bright and dancing. And then, the obdurate pit of sorrow. There is our enduring complexity of family ties and lovingness. And this being alive-ness, and remaining alive, too, when others leave.

We have had or heard of too much death this year, I know. But, seemingly irrelevant to this post, I still want to offer snow. But to consider its shapeshifting beauty, its softness, its welcoming spirit, its austerity and daunting challenges that can offer victory. Like when I ice skate and fall and start off once more. That long slide on the toboggan, uproarious with laughter, into glittering white fluff, or a crunch of iciness. Oh, I long for it sometimes. It doesn’t snow much where I live in Oregon–though Mt. Hood dazzles me in the distance all winter long on my walks. But I grew up in snow, heaps of it, five foot drifts of it in the Michigan country. I made small houses of snow. So when it snows here I return to the shimmer and drift of winter’s wild glory. It eases a knot in me.

It somehow brings Reid to mind, too, hands stuffed in his packets, a half-smile, solemn eyes. Maybe it is the blood we have shared: cold plains of northern Midwest, the mountain and valley greens of Oregon.

The candles here are for Reid. But I light many for others, as well. And want them lit just for darkened days and nights, so they may be ignited with simplest joy more often, and for a prayer for peace shared among those of us who remain. Sit with that flame and remember: we have such capacity for hope and courage.

This year has been so much more arduous than what we expected. Millions in the world suffer from depression and though 2020 has brought us all to moments of great uncertainty and worry, too many feel pushed to the very brink. Suicides have increased greatly during the pandemic. If you feel suicidal or know anyone who shares suicidal thoughts, or mentions even a vague, possible plan to die, please seek help now. If you know someone who needs even kindly support, offer a listening ear, a helpful hand. There is nothing better than the community of humankind when moved to support and aid one another. Let’s be present for each other as much as we can–no charity is too small a thing–and listen to our own hearts as much as possible.

Wednesday’s Passing Fancy/Nonfiction: In the Kitchen…and Dreaming of the Woods

I vowed decades ago to not cook as a general rule again –just a few basic dishes–unless it was crucial to get in there and have at it. Or, too, if I felt deeply moved to cook, say, for a very special occasion. My culinary activity and knowledge are pared way down. I’m talking about chili, spaghetti with sausage plus salad and steamed broccoli; long simmered beef stew; meatloaf with potatoes and green beans plus salad; or a dinner salad with a tuna mixture on top. You get the idea. I guess this is at the core of any cooking ease, but I worked harder at it to feed five kids, a husband and any others who straggled in. But I never liked it much. It was rush rush, get each dish going at the right time, get it on the table, hot, before they are out the door again. But I managed–the kids set the table, cleaned up a bit with me– and we almost always had a sit-down dinner with everyone.

The problem was, I was also reading a book or thinking of a poem or answering a child’s endless questions–I was not attentive in the correct manner. Which made for burned meals more often than I care to admit. It wasn’t so important to me, personally–I wanted the family to get adequate nutrition. My husband liked to cook some but he was often gone on business trips. It was simply get to it, get cooking or starve us all. (And these days if he isn’t here, it’s likely sandwiches, salads, soup, take out.)

My attitude likely has something to do with the fact that food and I have never gotten along so well. I have digestion disorders long treated with many medicines that only partially help. So, I have not craved food like most. A swift amendment: I did (do) crave all kinds of good food, but was/am not excited about eating=pain=suffering that occurs so often. I can’t even describe the heady longings that come over me for spicy Indian food or new Thai dishes or just great fresh salsa piled on a ton of tortilla chips along with a fat bean burrito. But I am cautious; I need to be. So I am used to milder and specific foods and less, not more. Rice and bananas, applesauce and toast are my Plan B pals–sort of like baby food, I know. But a back up that works. Some days a pear seems a rare luxury; I am in heaven as I sink my teeth in. But it’s just how it is, as if someone with a permanent lisp or chronic pain or itchy eyes and terrific sneezes around cats when your spouse adores cats–and you love each other, too. One manages the issue and keeps on living.

In any case–not to put you off, but most folks assume everyone loves to cook and eat during holidays–in any case: today I was in the kitchen, ready to go, despite longing for the woods, which I must have close to me every day.

I baked gingerbread cakes. Two. My plan was four, but after the two took half the afternoon, I said that was enough for one day. I am a tad rusty. I’ll consider more tomorrow. These are to share with our family in the area (to take to them, as they aren’t coming over). For the first half hour I was actually relaxed…even happy, mixing and measuring and greasing the pans. Very unusual to act as if I knew what I was doing and feel it’s true. But wouldn’t you know it, I got distracted by thinking about the amount of ginger the recipe listed, how strong that would be on the tongue, then no cloves anywhere to be found, only cinnamon and ginger. What would be best to do?

I had to research things again. And then got off track. So many options for basic gingerbread. When I got back to measuring and stirring, I looked in the huge bowl with half-blended ingredients. Then at the small amount of flour mixed with spices in a littler bowl. And I was suddenly not sure how much flour I’d already measured or how much had been already mixed in.

Remember, this is double the original recipe. It was a lot of flour and molasses and butter and other stuff. It took work to use the hand mixer, more work to use the wooden spoon. And even more flour had to go in–or was it a lot more?

Then came that seizure of uncertainty, the kind where I just want to run away and cry out. I am a reasonable grandmother; I do not need to panic over any cake. I need to take stock. But this can happen. I’ve been known to even throw in the towel occasionally, as this is what cooking can do: stare me down, threaten to defeat me. Especially if it is to be a special offering. Not born with natural cooking talents, I’m usually determined, organized. So to start like I did, relaxed and waltzing about the kitchen…it was stunning to be stopped by my own neglect/ forgetfulness/interest in research… if not actually baking.

My husband, trying to help (I think), said that next time I ought to measure out all the dry ingredients first and then… I tried to not glare at him. Well, I do know that, didn’t do it, thought all was well. Confidence in the kitchen is a dangerous thing for those like me. I wonder over the fact that so many people feel kitchen creativity is akin to tying nice new shoes with appropriate and attractive shoelaces–and there, good, off we go.

But words–I know how to call up, choose and measure those okay. So I talked to myself more sweetly and thought of my children whom I love beyond any sort of measure. Then looked at the cake batter and let Marc stir it a bit and give his opinion. I decided to go forward in my own way, to get it done. It got poured into pans and cooked in the oven, its spicy fragrance like forgiveness for any mistakes.

I then made the lemon sauce. He wanted to help with lemon peel grating but no, I grated, I squeezed with my bare hands then measured the juice, then stirred the saucepan and said to myself, This lovely, light, partly opaque sauce will be so good on that warm gingerbread. Just like my mother’s always was.

Oh, yes. Like my mother’s always was. Served richly warm with the sweet/tart lemony sauce and a small side of vanilla ice cream on pretty china plates, with water goblets shining in the final afternoon light, and a tablecloth so colorful and smelling of freshness made better with a steaming iron. And I knew she cared for us all; she made the effort, gave us beauty and good food along with good manners and a penchant for laughter and tale telling and so much more.

So that’s why I was in the kitchen today. Why I just stepped out on the balcony for a time, looking into the woods, feeling that magnetic pull to the trails. But then said no, not now. I can walk tomorrow, after I eat a bit of food Marc will mostly make. And in the morning we’ll chat with family over Zoom as so many will. And I’m daily relieved we’re well and doing nicely–no one has lost their mind, no one has died, o thank God…. Some days are much better than okay. Some not so acceptable. I some mornings do not easily rise from the warm covers, that naïve but tempting shelter. Then remember how much I get to learn and write, take pictures and read, and the walks and hikes and people to love. The ineffable mystery of it all which keeps me rising, anyway.

Life seems more moving and wonderful to me, if also more tender, fragile. The days are like a delicate span of a spider’s web strung with drops of shimmering beads of rain, and swaying in sunlight and wind and into a length of darkness. We live it a moment only, then another and another. It can be torn away without mercy. We can repair much of what is ripped or broken. Not all, no, surely not. It is this humanness we share, a clarion bell calling us to action or to repose, to deeper acceptance or to persistent re-creation. To get up, to be. Connect.

Meanwhile, in the coming ordinary day, another gingerbread will be made. Or not. Maybe I will add only scones. They also will go to children and grandchildren. Because I do care to make things in the kitchen for them.

My son and his wife are making turkey dinner to take to the streets, the homeless. That gives me pause. How dare I fuss over gingerbread? Is it shame I feel? No. All of life matters, that’s why I can write about gingerbread. And we do what we can, and do more when we are so moved. It all breaks my heart with its miracles and simplest things, and mends it, too.

Blessings to you and yours. And gratitude for all who have come before us.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Small Meditation on Winter’s Wishes

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

The rain drums, a powerful watery background chorus. It is snowing in nearby Cascade Mountains, and this makes me as happy as the rain music. I am warm and dry. At my feet, a tumbling stack of magazines and catalogs. Mug of tea at hand, I sort them into save/toss piles. The magazines once read must go. I hold back on catalogs. They are an invitation to good cheer and I will sit down with a few later.

They’ve been daily stuffed into the mailbox for weeks, then made the rounds from hands to a spot along a living room wall for leisurely browsing, in good company with a select group of nonfiction books on healing and travel, brushes with death and our wilder (nature-freed) selves. By now, just over a month before Christmas, companies have launched an all-out appeal to our vulnerable selves and skimpy wallets, hoping against hope that businesses will yet profit. Online, too, they try casting the spell. We’re held captive indoors again by threat of illness–and perhaps inclement weather– so we nestle into greater security of home. We wish for something that may comfort and reassure, I’d guess. So it is alright by me that I have one more vividly colored vehicle of wishfulness in my hands. (Except for paper waste, but I recycle them all).

The fact is, I’ve a long habit of delving into catalogs and for more time than sensible. It began in childhood, as it does with many. I took them aside– usually it was J.C. Penny or Sears–kept them unmarred for the moment when I’d thumb through each page, check off items I liked best with pencil or pen, turn down each requisite corner a tidy triangle to note their placement. And then a repeat until all my hopes were noted–despite knowing that Santa Claus or family would not be indulging me much. My parent’s were thrifty to the point of penny pinching, reflecting their generation’s trauma from the Depression again.

In any case, the looking gave rise to pleasure. (I liked all the details about colors, sizes, materials, usages–it appealed to my dream of becoming a reporter, I think, like Brenda Starr in the comics; it satisfied my need for specificity.) I felt something different from greed, though as a kid I wanted that blue Schwinn bike more than anything, new white leather figure skates–such extravagances– or more Nancy Drew books plus a clean new notebook and pencil. It was a simpler thing than desire that I felt. Magic. It was being transported into a realm other than the usual, a free jaunt through a quasi-fantasy land where everyone was smiling, all seemed unbreakable and guaranteed fun. I was a kid so I could afford time away from banality of chores and pressures of life. Catalogs, then, could be gateways to possibilities.

I kept getting them in the mail as I grew up, different ones reflecting my age added to the usual family types. I’d suspected after the internet there’d cease to be “wish books” printed for customers, but no, they kept coming. And decades later I look and wonder: would those narrow-wale, pewter-colored corduroy jeans hold up several years? The teal sweater be good from fall to spring? What about that unusual woven wild grass wreath with a straw bow? And the front outdoor mat is wearing out…perhaps an abstract design in warm hues? The things that are for sale out there astonish me. How can we want or need so much? Most of it appears irrelevant to me. I glance, move on to items that hold my attention well. T-shirts. Jewelry. Art. Good cotton socks. Books.

Still, catalogs have provided a practical means to an ends. I’ve tended to shop online part of the time for Christmas in addition to perusing tons of glossy pages, and shopping in-store the other part, often at small businesses. With five children and seven grandchildren to carefully consider, I need all the help I can get. Despite being a creative person and taking pleasure in giving, I’m not the most original gift chooser. I fuss over each, hoping it’s worth the money and will give the receiver enough satisfaction. We all hope for that…nothing worse than opening a gift one doesn’t need or like. I value unique ideas from shopkeepers as well as sources like Etsy, for example, or art galleries and independent booksellers– and occasionally big box stores with dependable varieties.

But then came 2020.

As the temperature lowers, I realize more each day it’s different this year, and not only because shopping in person will be tough at best, nonexistent at worst as the virus spirals out of control. Everything has begun to feel upside down this pre-holiday season. Things have also altered since my husband’s position was scrubbed from the company hierarchy in spring; a brutal streamlining due to decrease in business. Gift shopping, then, is not a high priority. Or maybe not even on the list.

Still, I gather catalogs at the dining table or easy chair or at bedtime bed—turn pages slowly, pen in hand to mark away. This lifetime habit is not going away easily. It doesn’t seem to bother me that I can’t enjoy a little extravagance. I still study interesting options, ruffle the paper and inhale its distinctive scent, hear the light, dry whisper of pages turning, feel its cool slickness–all part of an easy congeniality that’s become harder to find. It may even be more pleasant than other years. I don’t need to worry about appropriate gifts yet still enjoy the displays, and think of each family member fondly. Okay, I do love to buy things for people. Just…Not. Right. Now.

One yearly obsession is the Harry & David catalog. I usually order with some glee. An Oregon-based business, they offer healthier if traditional snack options (good cheeses, crackers, nut mixes) and sweet indulgences. But mainly it’s their beautiful, luscious fruit. Oh, those H & D pears– unlike any other I’ve tasted, sweet and juicy, velvety to tongue. It’s been a tradition to buy a pear box for everyone–and they’re always delighted.

But the next magnetic pull is to the toddler gifts. We have a Portland store called Finnegan’s, a very good toy store. My, our girl power twins are getting big and smart. I can nearly ditch common sense trying to not buy them goodies. Especially this year. I must use my restraint; they are not even two yet.

However, it’s not just holiday shopping that lures me. It’s the weather and how it turns. From six months of bright warm days to six of darkened, chilled, sodden ones, one starts to bundle up some. Farewell, capris and sandals and filmy tops. I love my jeans and black ankle boots, the worn waterproof trail shoes (I think the soles carry a little dirt from last year).

My Michigan childhood pointed the way to the lifelong plan: the temp goes down and the hunt was on for itchy woolen school attire. Multiple layers. And boots, mittens/gloves, hats, scarves: snow gear. A new toboggan would have made me more happy. I eagerly anticipated building snow forts in high drifts, and trudging through uninhabited Stark’s Nursery behind our house with my trusty sled in tow, setting out on an Arctic exploration…how far to the ice floe? Anyway, I’d begin perusing the pages, narrowing down the best options, then (as I got bigger) my mother and I often embarked on shopping trips to bigger cities,. Another pleasant diversion from the usual daily regimen, and studying, practicing my cello and working on figures for my skating class, and doing chores. Like shoveling heavy snow.

Preparation for changes of seasonal clothing happened four times a year, more or less into my twenties. Thus, this past September when I spotted an L.L.Bean hooded Primaloft jacket slashed from $189 to $29.99, I jumped on it. (Maybe it was last year’s color or there was a slight alteration in design.) Our winters are mild compared to those in my Michigan youth–almost no snow at 800 feet–but that doesn’t mean it’s ever balmy. It hit 39 degrees once already. So I pictured myself wearing the jacket instead at the wind-howling coast or on forest hikes half the year…and gifted myself. I was so excited to wear it at the beach, I basically advertised it on social media–despite it being a basic, warm jacket…well, simple things excite me.

That’s how it happened growing up. I’ve had to alter the habit. This year, only fabulous wool felt slippers to defend my feet against this west-facing place in the trees (by Glerups)–last year my toes fought against potential frostbite by nightfall– and then that jacket. I have other jackets. But this one was better. (I am not being paid to promote anything despite how it may look….that cheesy smile and all) I was trying to say in the pictures: Enjoy what’s good for you–nature, exercise! Get outdoors and love life now! while showing off my new jacket. Not as stylish as they come, but snuggly. Since I can get cold fast, this is a primo review.

Alas, I’ve long had a small addiction to certain outdoor or sports wear brands–so, too, catalogs. L.L.Bean, Land’s End, REI, Cabela’s, Columbia Sportswear. Thank goodness for sales. And pages to study, finding anticipation for more adventures. Some day. Any pleasant image can help these days.

It may seem superficial but it’s relaxing to browse catalogs. Kids’ educational games and toys; tools; electronics of many sorts; books/book lovers’ curios; home goods (ah, good linens and towels); food goodies; flowers in bunches; spring seed packets (dreams begin with small seeds); music and movies; Vermont old country store stuff (random); varieties of flours for baking; arts and crafts supplies; sports equipment; papers and pens; art prints; clothing–so on and so forth.

And it can fuel my curiosity, especially those from, say, the Museum of Modern Art or National Geographic Society. I may discover new things such as how a rechargeable tool is multiple-use, or a newly-spotted squid moving among enchanting undersea forms and colors. Or, too, that some youth-touting facial serum made from seaweed and other “organics” can lower my precious cash reserves by $250–give me splashes of cold spring water. I admit to an interest, however, in perfumes. The unusual olfactory-awakening combinations; scents created with all natural ingredients, and how they’re described so poetically: who wouldn’t want to wear “Dance of the Moonlit Sea”? Only, in Italian. Smells that much better in my mind. (And how can I get a job making up those names?)

By far the best are book catalogs which have me riveted for several sittings. A new book by an unknown but intriguing author. Look–a whole new genre! Dare I order this or that? I dare not. I have access to a free library; we can put things on hold now and pick them up… But I can look and consider. I make a wish list, file it in a notebook for safekeeping for the day when I can wander for hours in the intoxicating maze of Powell’s Bookstore downtown again.

I admit holiday catalogs impact me in a less festive manner now. I know I won’t be ordering much. I get excited for one person or another, then remember this year is a lean one. An isolated one. But I am not that crafts-y, so what next? Local nurseries for…something pretty…I was considering a lovely birch/pine centerpiece for a daughter (or us) when it hit me harder: no one will see it in person but Marc and me this year. Well, it’s still attractive. It still would smell woodsy-delicious.

I may get it for daughter, Aimee, anyway. Family love comes to us at no price; we still can share it one way or another. But, too, the new jacket will be donned in chilly dampness for years. My new slippers will do the job. I maintain that it’s good to have catalogs for occasional supplemental semi-reading. These are neutral or amusing moments we can spend that offer us choices. They bring back a wistfulness for what we want to believe were kinder days, perhaps. It’s healthy to daydream some. And it’s a bonus to find a great sale, no matter the time of year.

Back in the day…

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Musical Family, Ensemble and Solo

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

As wildfires in our county (in Oregon, so many places) threatened our safety, I got emails from two cousins I hadn’t heard from in years. They were checking in on me with concern and care from their homes in New Mexico. Shortly after came a package from one of my cousins. She’d found CDs from the 1950s and early 1960s of my hometown high school orchestra, which my father taught and conducted. I am not on the recordings; this was before I was an adolescent. But a couple of my older sisters’ cello and bassoon solos are noted. There is Gershwin, Dvorak, Bach, Mozart; pieces from Bizet, Handel, Tchaikovsky and more on the playlists. I haven’t listened yet, just gazed at them. I know the orchestra will sound very good–it won a fine reputation all over Michigan from the fifties on. I played my cello in Midland High School orchestra in the mid-to-late sixties. First seat, then second, then…well, I stopped rigorously practicing and competing with others by my senior year. And I was singing more and more.

What the CDs did, nonetheless, was reawaken memories of my family’s commitment to and love of music, the ways it shaped us. Though I don’t know Randie or Sally well now, I once did know them better–to love them was to love the music in their lives, too. My extended family enjoyed many reunions in Missouri where our fathers were raised as I grew up. Inevitably there were swapped music stories, and soon people played–just as we did in our homes if in different states from very early ages.

Randie has been a professional violinist and teacher all her adult life. Her sister, Sally, has made a career as a professional cellist. Their father, my Uncle Ralph, was a flutist and a composer with many published works, and a university professor. There are other musicians in the family–an opera singer and professional choir members, many instrumentalists who have played professionally. Nieces, nephews and on and on–we all played or sang, even without monetary reward. It hardly seemed we could shift the central focus from music. Not that folks wanted to, anyway; it was a major fixture of life.

So I am glad to hear from my Uncle Ralph’s daughters once more. Sally played cello in Bergen, Norway’s symphony for many years, then she played in New York, LA and who knows where else. Randie lived in Seattle, (where my cellist sister lived til the last two years of her life, so they were in touch often). These cousins seemed bigger than life when I was young–and, in fact, are six feet tall as were or are my uncles, father and brothers. (I am 5 ft. 2.5; perhaps I was 5 ft. 4, once…) But they were lovely and smart, as well as very talented.

We, as happens as kids grow up and move, lost touch. A childhood memory I have is of convening in my Grandfather and Grandmother Guenther’s white house with its back garden and front porch. We shared blankets on the living room floor at night, giggling and talking quietly, ran about and played games for a couple of days, music a bit less compelling under age 10. Our fathers made music; Grandfather shared thoughts and books(and sometimes his writings with me, an honor) and our grandmother cooked huge meals that we ate around a crowded dining room table. The last adult memory of my cousins and I together was for my Uncle Ralph birthday in Seattle. It was his 90th birthday, and Sally and Randie played a fine duet for the celebration. Elegant and aged Uncle Ralph sat quietly listening in a wheelchair, and he was so pleased we all came that could. (My Aunt LaVonne, his wife, was an excellent pianist.)

Musicians, then–even in my home town where most of my friends played instruments or sang–informed much of my life. Performing issues or goals, discussions of music-related topics, time filled with this passion and the increasing accomplishments. All four of my siblings played one or two instruments and later made money at it. Dad was a violinist and violist, an arranger of music, a conductor and teacher, piano tuner, instrument repairer and appraiser, and more. He was a man who was intimidating even as I found him mysterious at times and charming. I watched him often, head bent over a book or a musical score he studied for an upcoming performance. It was clear he had much on his mind, more to accomplish every day. He was certain about what mattered to him: music, providing for his family and God being highest on the list. In fact, that may have been the list despite having diverse interests.

One of Dad’s “side jobs” was repairing musical instruments, a fun thing for me if work for him, though he seemed more relaxed doing it. He specialized in violins, violas, cellos and basses, but it was not an unfamiliar sight to see woodwinds propped up–or, as the others, lying rather lifeless on a long table in various states of repair. Occasionally, a brass instrument showed up; his expertise reflected instruments he knew how to play, which were various. Dad counted string instruments his favorites, as far as I knew. But he also played trombone and saxophone in dance bands long before I came into his life–a revelation in my early teens. He even played them once in awhile for certain entertaining performances he participated in, like the City Band he conducted or a high school show which allowed teachers to also perform, called “Rhapsody Rendezvous.

One of my favorite things was to follow him down to the basement. It was like entering a country unto itself, populated by musical devices both beautiful and broken. I would stand at his shoulder. The not unpleasant odor of special glue he dabbed on seams of wooden bodies permeated the cubbyhole he called workshop. The overhead, flex-armed light illuminated a concentrated circle for close work. The room’s corners were swathed in friendly shadows. I sometimes fingered the instruments, admired their shapes and sounds. He got to it but with patience and precision but added very few comments, and mostly to himself. He knew I was there; he asked for pliers, brushes, clamps, just as he asked for tools when he worked on our cars in the driveway. He appreciated both kinds of work and I could be a helper if he needed it. And it was music-related without being music performance.

I loved being with him when he fixed things–it might also be a toaster or a lamp–because he was more accessible, down to earth, then; he could show me interesting problems to be solved and teach me things that weren’t lofty or important in the arts world, but in everyday life. More usually he was a man deep within himself and propelled by clear visions. I used to joke with friends that he seldom knew what I was up to–as long as I practiced my cello (my sister and I both played) and voice lessons, got excellent grades and was respectful, he didn’t notice much unless there was a huge crisis that he could not ignore–Mom took care of those, usually.

It is a gift growing up in a musical family, a joy that in time one realizes is not actually everyone’s experience. And it also could feel like a burden with its mandates to perform and do very well all the time, made more so when Dad intoned and thus imprinted on my brain: “It is a sin to not use a talent.” I doubt he meant to threaten or shame, but to remind me of the blessing of music and other innate abilities. “To whom much is given, much is required,” he might also say in his Bible study voice. But it still landed hard. Otherwise, he was the quintessential gentleman, a dreamy-eyed musician and amateur scholar of history, sciences, classical music and the Bible, a competitive player of many games, and possessed of an inventive bent–but there was no mistaking what he believed and expected. He worked so hard; he expected all of us to do the same, and to excel. To find fulfillment as he sought and often found. To use all the potential we could.

Music was so vital to my life that it truly directed and drove me, enriched and comforted me–and wounded me. I adored the cello my father and I bought together, to my utter surprise, when I was 12. I was moved by its large body pulled close, its resonance and ready responsiveness to placement of fingers and a strong bow across strings with sweeps of channeled emotions. I felt at home with it in my arms and greatly extended by its eloquent speech.

But it was singing that held me captive even more. Opening my mouth and throat and letting sounds smoothly, happily flow. How they could be shaped b y the body and mind to make all the difference in expression. I sang in every theatrical production, choir, and single event that I could. I performed with a trio and a couple of bands. I sang while trying to compose at our baby grand piano– but I dreamed of being a jazz singer, not a classical soloist. Jazz was not much played in our home, and never discussed as an option for us kids to study. Every fiber in my being woke up when I sang; life seemed much better embraced and interpreted. Decoded, even. It was also fun when much of my teen life was not. Human life was somehow magnified, cherished, given infusions of hope and joy with song. Music was, after all and no matter what, the purest form of love. So I believed.

But jazz, folk or pop music certainly was not what Dad planned for his children. He found these largely inferior forms, perhaps even inauthentic musical genres and only now and then did he grudgingly admit that there was other music that could be exceptional. There was one great music and it was classical–despite his playing in dance bands as a college student.

So I was bewildered why he agreed to play piano to accompany me when I sang–or he might even join his voice–old standards. But that was recreational, a relaxing downtime, not something for the finest musicians. It was like we shared a secret admiration of songs like “Stairway to the Stars” and “Embraceable You” and “Spring is here”. He smiled as I sang out, but it was understood that these didn’t quite count in the end, no matter how well I sang. He never deviated from the idea that classical music was meant to enlighten, challenge and enthrall while good popular music was “entertainment”, thus dismissible. I never knew why it had to be that way for him. I kept practicing my art songs, resentfully.

My mother–not a musician but a visual artist/creator/maker– all those years stood at the edges of our intense music making. Yet she watched, listened, intuited much–and gave out quiet praise, applause, was in attendance at all our concerts. She is who made Dad’s career in music reach a higher state. She is who believed in us always when we did not.

One of my bothers did manage to successfully move in another world to play jazz the rest of his life. Gary had a college plan of becoming a psychologist and he was for a few years. But jazz took him with it and that was that. I was thrilled to hear my gifted brother play sax, clarinet, oboe, flute, piccolo with bands in Portland after I moved here, and he sang, as well. He asked me to sing with him a few times–he was convinced I’d do well–but I always declined. By then I was 40, a newly single mother and recently moved to the NW. I hadn’t sung in a very long time. I did not want to disappoint him. Or myself. And, too, I was a little afraid I would fall back in love with singing. I could not afford to trod that route–and he played in bars while I was not about to drink again. I had to get serious about making money to support myself, a daughter and son–to just take care of business.

There had, in fact, been no dreams of being a singer since I was 20– right before my first marriage. I had learned long before how to not tell secrets. Leaning how to not sing was as hard, but just as doable. But to not want to sing? Incredibly hard.

It was a mystery to many who knew me why I left music almost entirely after a childhood and youth of being utterly immersed in it, and also having successes. For awhile I was baffled, but it was easy to blame various circumstances for not supporting easy access to music making. I sang to my babies or when teaching them songs; when alone outdoors; in the shower sometimes like everyone does; and when playing recording artists–comfortable favorites of 1960s, 70s and 80s like Judy Collins, Bonnie Raitt or Joni Mitchell; newer jazz singers such as Diana Krall, Eliane Elias, Diane Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and even–dare I say it–the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, whom I still so revere. I was happy when I sang at home in those days still, but alongside the pleasure was sorrow. It was becoming clear that there would be no good opportunities as I became daily more domesticated, less engaged in the arts as I lived out my twenties. As I struggled with more trials and a hope of some victory over demons of abuse and substance use.

I rarely sang for either of my husbands–the first liked my voice but didn’t encourage me; it felt embarrassing to even spontaneously sing out. He was a sculptor; for some reason he enjoyed my occasional cello playing more. Otherwise he liked quietness, didn’t talk much–so liked that I wrote–some poems were used in multi-media shows we did. The second husband liked to sing and play guitar, but he preferred doing it alone, both at home and in coffee houses back then. He didn’t have a desire to sing with me, and it shocked me that even though we worked on good harmonies when he did agree to let me join in, and when we wrote a song or two together, he still wanted to go solo. It didn’t take long to stop trying since my voice was an intrusion on his musical domain. It was fine that I played my cello, again–that was another thing altogether.

It is possible that people give up what they love because they get worn out by failing to get what they want or need. I can’t blame my spouses, really. But once married, I didn’t often live where musical options or performances were well accessible. And soon there wasn’t time with a growing family and husbands often gone for longer and longer for work. I stopped singing even at home as children kids grew up–they’d sing over me as kids do without thinking anything of it, or cover their ears when wanting to hear something they desire. I put on their music and sang with them then.

But, really, I began to let go of singing by age 20, when it all got difficult. When it hurt more than gave me happiness. It felt foreign but it was how it was. I was gradually losing the joy of my cello, of song.

Traumatic events can cause people to go mute. Cumulative trauma may have caused me to lose the natural capacity to sing–certainly to be pleased and fulfilled by singing, and finally to believe in the transformative, positive powers of music in the way I did as a child, then youth. Violent or disturbing experiences kept happening one after the other. For me it meant that music–the golden power and instinctual ways of it, the inspirational wonder and bold stories it offered–leaked away from deepest self, my very breath, so that soon I no longer wanted to or even could produce music from my lips. A few years later, when I tried, I wept and so gave it up again. Even in church when I sang familiar, pretty hymns. Maybe I recalled my father told me that to not use a talent was a sin; maybe that haunted me.

It was just as likely I no longer felt worthy of singing. I left music as I had known it because it’s immense mystery and passion had seeped away as I battled with life, learned how to be tougher, to survive alone. It felt like gorgeous, lively waters eroding and then abandoning a riverbed, to leave it it empty and useless. It was a hollowing out.

I sang almost nothing (“Happy Birthday” to loved ones, a holiday tune with others) for over a decade, not when alone, not even a little humming along with songs. It was not in me. My family of musicians made their music, and my children made some music and I listened and was glad of it. But I was no longer a part of that major experience, that special tradition. I was adrift like a castaway, and I steered by sheer instincts more than with my heart. And I got to where I needed to go, finally, one step and a day at a time.

Life went on. Then when I reached my mid-forties there came the day when my youngest daughter, who did sing with a lovely soprano, decided she wanted to join a women’s chorus. She asked me if I would, too. Terrified, I finally agreed. I figured I might be able to sing very quietly if there was a large group. So each week I practiced with the group as I attempted to loosen up, to remember the techniques to sing correctly, as well as enjoy the songs as my eyes scanned musical notations I had only half-recognized, anymore. It got a bit easier each time and it pleased us both that Alexandra and I were singing together. But my throat–my whole body– felt constricted, even sore after each rehearsal. I wanted to sing louder and better, but it was hard to stand there and hear the music, to encourage any sound to come out. I thought, well, I am trying.

Alexandra took voice lessons. I wondered if the right vocal teacher could show me how to recover my lost singing voice. If someone could help heal me. But the usual excuse was that there was not enough money for that, other things mattered more. I was writing as I had always been able to write– stories, poems and memoir. And I was publishing here and there, had found good writing groups. Maybe written language was truly enough–I’d loved stories my whole life, perhaps as much as I had loved music. But more like words and I were kindred spirits/ comrades. Music was…different. After so many years of disciplined effort and a deepening devotion, perhaps I could say I loved writing more. Perhaps. Why then reopen the wound of music? I did try to sing alone, now and then.

But when my mother died (Dad had passed years before) whole songs came to me out of the blue even as I grieved a long while. It was distressing and wonderful that I opened my mouth and they were right there, and I found it a liberation. Why? Maybe the wound was turning to scar tissue at last, and so pain was losing out to joy again. Maybe I was letting go of the burdens and opening my hands to more possibility.

I didn’t become a singer, I didn’t join a fine choir. I just sang a little more. There may not be a clear end to this story. I did sing with another community chorus or two; it became more pleasurable each time. But I learned to sing more in church–the times I don’t want to cry during the moving hymns are more frequent. I did not take voice lessons. I have sung a little at home when alone, along with a CD or the radio, but not often, and not loud. I have sung to my grandchildren. I do not sing with my second husband, who is with me and still sings alone. But–progress. Taking more chances helps incrementally, though my voice sounds rusty to me too often, and songs need to be cajoled and teased, enchanted out of me. I often choke on words or certain notes escape me just enough that I have to stop. But I know I might start again, even if it is in my living room or in the woods.

I am remembering more how it was. In my late teens I stopped competing with others and working to be a classical vocalist. Instead, I let my body move to music and my soul tell a story and tunes welled up to take me with them, then out to the listener–it was for awhile that easy to sing and know happiness was mine fully. And the memory is good, even if the talent was forsaken, the passion turned off for later survival. Sometimes it is better to leave what one loves the most than to slowly starve from hunger for it, the terrible relentless longing. It was what had to be done, I know now, to get on with my life at 19– after another rape, a breakdown and addiction, slow recovery, then a marriage. Discovering the miracle of being a mother and the salvation of putting one’s self quite aside for the sake of beloved others. It could be done, living for good moments, for love again. I found new goals, explored other creative impulses and was glad of remaining passions I have been fortunate to enjoy.

At 70, I have made more peace with what was not and with what is. I see the great benefits of forgiveness of self and others, of overcoming hurdles and striving onward. I can see a wound as a particular kind of reckoning with self and the world, and its healing as a process of surprising renewal. The spiritual warrior and seeker in me has better implemented clarity and found more bravery. As with all things that matter, it is a fact that I left music, but that doesn’t mean it ever left me. It waits and lets me find it as I can, to experience it as feels right.

I feel sometimes that I may sing a little more, be more okay with what comes out in spurts and pauses, with breathlessness, even if made slippery with tears. But I am aiming for lighter music, simpler fun tunes, melodies for the grandbabies–and perhaps some small sharing with others if it ever comes up. My three biological children happily make and share music in one way or another, and so do their children. I asked Dad when he lay dying, as I sat with him awhile, if he thought my youngest should keep singing more seriously. I don’t know why I asked; he just knew so much about music, though he hadn’t heard her voice in quite awhile. But he said: “If she sings like you have sung.” It was the first time he’d acknowledged what was left behind, and also told me he always did value my singing, no matter my style. No matter if I loved jazz and pop and world music and blue grass, and all the rest–as well as beloved classical (which still often fills hours of my time).

This is some of what it is like to be born into a musical family, and given a musical inheritance. It is a love story of many sorts, a madness and and a celebration. I cannot be untethered from my DNA, nor divorced from my true loves. I will likely sing whatever songs will have me and I, them. Even if no one is listening.