Little Dove, In Abstentia

landscape-under-snow-upper-norwood- Camille Pissarro
(Landscape Under Snow-Upper Norwood- Camille Pissarro)

Poppi was hosting Thanksgiving this year. Carter’s birthday was two days before Thanksgiving and he was happy to have it there. Although it wasn’t as spectacular as a birthday right before Christmas, it brought a bonanza of attention and a few goodies. He  looked forward to the family traditions. Carter was turning nine; he thought that was a decent age. It was closer to being less a little kid, yet not so close to being grown up that he had to act it all the time. And between the spread on the table and his very own lemon zest cake (they also had the usual apple, pumpkin and pecan pies), his belly would grow at least two inches in a matter of an hour. He’d measured it once.

He got gifts, of course.The real important ones came on Christmas morning so he’d keep smiling when he got another pair of wild socks from Aunt Rosa and a used book he wouldn’t read from Uncle Phil. They flew all the way up from Texas so were forgiven. He usually got a little money. This year he’d asked his parents for a black ski hat, a half pound bag of gummy sharks, a Polartec hoodie (pine green) and gift card for the movie theater so he and his best friend Lou could go see a new movie during school vacation. And a pillow. The pillow was important; his was squashed to the point of no return and smelled of popcorn and dirty hair.

It was likely he would get most things or a surprise or two. But first: the feast.

It usually alternated between Carter’s house and Grandfather’s house. Every one called him Poppi. Grandmother had died when Carter was six but he still remembered her like she was a regular visitor. His mother said maybe she was, but also knew Carter had an exceptional memory. He was the only one who noticed she had moved the cactus garden from the middle of the buffet to left after dusting. He knew what the meals had been the last umpteen months if not years so his mother consulted with him on menu ideas. Everything he’d read–Presidents’ names, major world events and their dates and so n on–all the people he’d ever met and music he’d heard with full lyrics: right there when called on. There was no end to it, he was afraid.

In school, of course, this made him a sore thumb. Schoolmates called him a show off and worse. They also liked to pump his memory right before tests. It wasn’t that he was so smart; he just didn’t forget. It could be annoying. Like the day Carter had skidded into someone on the ice rink when he was five. He couldn’t get up until they lifted off a short, round woman. Carter’s stomach flip-flopped even now at the thought of how she’d smelled, spicy mixed with damp wool and bad breath. He could still recall her plumpness pinning him to the freezing ice and her soft curls tickling his face. She had pretty angel earrings.

He remembered Grandmother’s hands, the veins like little vines under white skin, her long fingers gentle on his face. The rattle of pans and squeak of drawers when she was in the kitchen, like a cooking band. He remembered how she walked with long strides, shoulders just so. She read him stories and sang him songs, Carter sitting on her lap.

Poppi had a good house. It was brick, two stories, not overly large, but with enough rooms to play a long game of hide and seek with the four cousins after dinner. It smelled like pine and burning wood because Poppi lit big candles on the dining table and kept a fire going in the family room. Carter’s house didn’t have a fireplace, just a big back yard with a homemade fire pit.

When it got cold in November, he went over to play play a game of checkers with Poppi. Grandmother brought tea in a big white pot. Carter thought sipping tea from small cups was good if funny but never let on. And ginger cookies came with tea. Carter knew she was pretty, with white hair so bright it lit up a dull room, her grey eyes smiling. When she talked it was as though birds entered the room; her words were like soft cooing sounds that seemed to float above chaos and noise, then land like snowflakes or feathers on Carter’s shoulders. That was why Poppi called her “Little Dove” sometimes. Carter felt good when he repeated the nickname.

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(Voortman House and Park in Snow, 1900 -Albert Baertsoen, Museum of Fine Art, Ghent)

They all missed her. She had been a music teacher, and made music seem a biological need. She would play on the old grand piano after meals and she and Poppi would sing, then get everyone else to join in. No one minded. It’s how their family did things. Carter liked being there most after home, even though it was hard when Grandmother didn’t wake up one morning.

Poppi now had a certain way of making sure she was with them each Thanksgiving and Christmas. He always left her chair empty at the table; he put a place setting there. The grown ups accepted it. Carter didn’t think about it until Lance, his fourteen year old cousin, mentioned it.

“Do you think Poppi will still keep the chair at the other end of the table empty? I mean, Grandmother has been gone for three years now. It’s weird, right? It spooks me. He needs to move on.”

Carter shook his head. “It’s what he does. I don’t know who else would sit there.”

“How about one of our moms or dads?”

That would be weird. It’s Grandmother’s seat.”

Lance flicked him with an index finger. “You’re weird, Einstein!”

So Carter had been thinking about Poppi. He wondered how it was to turn in without Little Dove on Christmas Eve. How he felt when he started to talk to her and she wasn’t there.  Carter recalled odd things about her, like her shoes. She always wore real leather high heels until she was done for the day. Then she put on loose pants and sloppy blue slippers that had tiny white flowers on them. She said they were edelweiss and once sang a song from a very old musical, “The Sound of Music.” She’d sung on stage, he knew, and wondered if she’d wanted to be a star. In college she’d met Poppi and they’d “fallen so deep they couldn’t get out” she’d said with a chuckle.

Carter anticipated his ninth birthday but this year he had a surprise for Poppi. He’d had a half-brilliant idea that the family traditions might be tweaked a little and still be great. He had thought it out a long week before making his decision. He worried Poppi might be shocked at first. Cater didn’t want to cause trouble, but he wanted to add something of his own.

Monet's Magpie                                    (Magpie-Claude Monet)

All of them were seated at the table and Poppi was in the kitchen getting the turkey, carving knife and fork. Carter got up and slipped over to Grandmother’s empty chair. Then he felt under the hanging flap of the yellow tablecloth and pulled up something. He set it on the seat and adjusted it just so. He heard gasps from his mother and Aunt Rosa and Lance snickering. Poppi was coming into the dining room. Carter sat in his seat just in time.

It was a good thing his grandfather had set the turkey platter down in front of his plate or there would have been a mess. Poppi’s hands went right to his heart. Hi eyes widened and his face paled. Uncle Phil and Carter’s dad rose to catch him in case he fainted. Cater felt his throat constrict. He was light-headed. What stupid thing had he gone and done?

His mother stood up, too. “Poppi, I’m so sorry–Carter didn’t tell me what he was up to! Carter…” She gave him a hurt look.

“Shush.” Poppi said and stood still a moment. Then he carefully walked over to the chair where Grandmother had reigned over meals for decades. He stood before the grey and white stuffed husky that sat at her place. It was over three feet tall. Its blue eyes gazed out over the table and a pink tongue was glimpsed at its mouth. One paw was atop the tablecloth. Poppi touched its back, then finally patted its head. He blinked back tears, then started to laugh.

“Good heavens, boy, you invited Oscar!” Poppi smiled so all  his teeth showed, a rare thing since he was a more serious type. “She’d love this; he’s right where he belongs.”

The dining room started to fill with sounds of people talking and then clapping, and Lance came over and mussed Carter’s hair. Every one shared memories of Grandmother and Oscar, the real husky Poppi and she had loved for ten years before a truck got him. Carter had decided to give her this stuffed dog the Christmas before she passed. She’d kept it on the trunk at the end of their bed or near her chair in the living room.

When she’d passed Poppi had given it back to Carter; it had been a reminder he didn’t need. Oscar slept each night with Carter but now he was nine. He could share.

Carter went to his grandfather and hugged him tight around the middle. He felt a little shy about it but he felt great that everything was going to be alright. Poppi hugged right back. Carter had missed her so, but maybe they would gather by the fire and sing after dinner again, Oscar warming by the hearth, Little Dove humming along from afar.

 

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Happy Thanksgiving, kind readers, and thank you for reading my blog! Best regards, Cynthia

Tango for Sale

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She said they didn’t have any great skills but that’s why people enrolled in dance lessons, right? So they saw their new ad and here they were.

Sadie was a talker but they both shared a lot, how they liked to do things that required far less sweat–watching movies, enjoying six course meals, mastering the art of checkers. Carlos was a factory worker so when he was off, he was done. Sadie was manager of a tapas café until the owner’s daughter took her job. Now she worked at her aunt’s collection business.

“Collection stinks. How can I harass people who don’t have the money to meet basic needs? It’s indecent.”

Janelle tried to not listen as she showed a student how to stretch, but how could you avoid such a voice? She couldn’t imagine what it was like getting Sadie’s phone calls or living with that decibel. But the way he patted her shoulder, brushed her bangs from her eyes and bent down to kiss her long nose–some might say large–said it all. He was handsome in a beat-up way, Janelle thought. Must be newlyweds.

They wanted to live better, lower stress, they said. Janelle and Baron had an ad in the neighborhood weekly but this month they’d run a special. First three classes for ten bucks each, then after that the regular rate of twenty an hour. Or ten for one-forty, a real savings. Not so many people wanted dance lessons when they had trouble paying bills. It netted them a half-dozen newbie so far.

“I gotta keep myself in shape,” Sadie said, rolling her eyes. “I’m edging toward thirty-seven and you know where that leads.”

Janelle smiled and handed her a schedule.

Carlos watched the group learning the tango.  He seemed restless; Janelle assumed Sadie had dragged him there. He didn’t ask questions, shrugged with hands in pockets. But in ten minutes it became apparent the guy had a sense of rhythm. He tapped his foot, bounced a little as he paced, and studied the moves.

“Sign us up for this one. I can tell he likes it.” Sadie beamed at her man and he shot her a hundred-watt smile.

Janelle took her check for three lessons and talked over attire and rules of the dance floor. Just to be clear. Sadie had worn a long brown sweater, tight jeans and heavy boots.

Baron whisked by, then paused. “You like tango?” He was the expert on this dance.

Sadie shrugged. “We like games, checkers or dominoes, t.v. shows after work. I don’t watch football like him but I used to play volleyball awhile back. I had a bike, rode it every day. Got ripped off. Tango, yeah, well, I used to dance a long time ago. I’m game to try anything and I love Latin music. And Carlos.” Her laugh boomed in the small space and a few people looked her way.

The couple hustled out the door, Sadie waving like they were old friends, saying they’d be back.

Baron chuckled as he stepped back on the floor. “He might be a natural.What a couple of characters!”

Janelle threw him a sideways glance. Her husband: six feet three, a balding redhead, brown eyes that could scald or light her up depending on his mood. He never took off the long necklace with crystal and jade pendants. He denied being superstitious but she knew better.

Of course, she was not a flawless fifty. A bit soft, okay rounder than she’d planned. But she had thick, long, silvery hair; it saved Janelle from despair some days. Ridiculous. But every morning after the mirror check she said aloud, “I’m still a dancer and a better teacher.”

“I bet the woman can dance,” Janelle confided in Baron that night as they closed up. “And that Carlos may be a natural.”

“In the end it doesn’t matter, darling girl. Two more students! We’ll make a decent profit this session.”

He rapped the scarred wooden desk top three times.

The next week the couple turned up. Carlos seemed embarrassed and Sadie did not when they bungled their first steps.  They took a sail around the room to loosen up more despite Janelle and Baron’s frowns. The group appeared more relaxed with the breezy twosome there. Baron noted it felt less like pulling teeth to get them to commit to the steps.

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“Look,” Sadie told everyone, “just act like you know what you’re doing and mirror our teachers’ movements–they’re perfect!”

Carlos held her tightly. They were stiff in each other’s arms. Then tango music crescendoed, intense rhythms shaking up melody, Sadie’s laugh punctuating their goofs.

The room felt good, the atmosphere livelier.

“See?” Janelle whispered. “Though they could be a little more serious.”

He nodded slowly, eyes on the new couple.

There were twelve total on the floor. The ones who improved were those who let down their guard a bit. It wasn’t just feet, arms and head placements. The tango was a passionate dance, a lover’s dance, and relayed what words couldn’t begin to say. Some people were too scared to welcome that sort of power. Others would find their way. And some, like Carlos and Sadie, got in the thick of it because they wanted to be right there.

The second class was a success; everyone learned what they were supposed to, on time. The group began to jell. The third class demanded more, putting  more complicated steps together quickly. Confidence was required.

Sadie leaned into Carlos as they veered away to the group’s edge. She’d worn a floral skirt and scuffed red dance shoes and when he guided her she responded with the trust needed to move in concert. They executed more difficult moves, moved instinctively. They were engrossed, enchanted–by the music’s heat, the challenge of the dance, each other.

Baron and Janelle watched in surprise. They’d been practicing. They had, it seemed, real promise. Everyone stole admiring glances at them. Sadie and Carlos were beautiful to behold; their electric presence brought back Janelle’s and Baron’s past, when they were young, fresh, excited by the grand emotion of it all.

“I love those kids,” Baron told her as they watched the floor and the students. “Carlos and Sadie have the spirit. How can you teach the essence of tango? I know we didn’t teach that in three classes.”

“No, but we still get to show them the way. Look at them glow.”

She said it with such reverence that Baron slipped an arm around her waist. He absently touched the necklace. He wondered over  the new couple.

“They’ve got something besides talent, Janelle. They know something, a secret that makes them good so fast.”

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She shook her head but the way he said it, his hand on those darned pendants–she knew what he meant. She shivered a little and followed their moves. Turning in the light and shadow, their bodies in sync, their profound silence infused with something Janelle couldn’t name. When the song drew to a close, all the students clapped for each other. They were so pleased to have taken this class. And they had two stars in the making right before them. They were drawn to Sadie and Carlos–the first pink-faced and panting, the second animated and shiny with sweat–like bees to clover. They lingered awhile, chatting until Janelle and her husband had to lock up.

When the students trailed out, the two teachers sat and looked at each other. They were having success. Happiness coursed through them like a veritable transfusion. Janelle got up and settled on her husband’s knees. He closed his arms around her.

The fourth week came and they waited and waited for Sadie and Carlos to come through the door. The students took their places. The tango music swelled; work got underway. Janelle looked at the clock, at the door. Baron called the commands, adjusted a few couples’ positions and threw her a glance, fingering the pendants. Everyone seemed stiffer than usual, not quite on task. They missed their inspiration, waited for the golden couple.

“It has to be another appointment or the flu. Or maybe they ran out of money and just didn’t want to tell us.”

“No,” Baron said. “Tango meant too much already. They should be here.”

The fifth week, no show, no call. Janelle tried Sadie’s number but  no answer. The sixth week everyone took their places without a word; if the other two showed, good and if not, well, a mystery. Janelle was on the phone–there had been so much interest lately–when Carlos walked in. The room erupted in cheerful greetings until they saw he was unshaven, hair a mess, and eyes dull. The group gathered around him, hands to chests.

“What, Carlos?” Janelle put her hand on his arm.

“Sadie has a weak heart. Can you imagine her with a bum ticker? Yeah, I knew. And she had more and more trouble breathing.” His eyes filled. “Had to have surgery. She’s not so great.”

It was clear he didn’t know when or even if she’d get back. But she was home. Their shock and sympathy were a soft murmur.

“We’ll go see her, okay, Carlos?” Baron spoke with firmness. He grabbed the tango CD from the player and got his jacket.

Janelle got her coat and one by one they all prepared to follow.  When they trooped upstairs and the neighbor who’d been staying with her left, they squeezed into the bedroom where she lay, eyes suddenly wide. It was a little strange, being in this intimate space with someone who had seemed far different. Her presence had been so big at the studio. Now, she looked very small.

The new friends shared encouragement in near-whispers. Sadie listened and an easy smile usurped her frailness, while her eyes tried to hide fear, pain, grief. She seemed nearly transparent. So young to be lying there. Such an ill-begotten and terribly unwanted thing possessed her. But she held out her hands to them in thanks.

And then the music started. She heard the tango boldly wending its way into her room with its smooth, sly beauty, sensual and bittersweet, wrapping her in vivid life. She closed her eyes and she was dancing, feet strong and body lithe as she pulled it into her faulty heart. Carlos was there showing her the way. Her spirit leapt. There were lights like stars and a broad swath of velvety blue and she danced right to the moon. It was what she’d needed.

Carlos sat on her bed to make certain her chest rose up and down and he felt the music seep into her marrow and his. The crowd filed out of the bedroom like a collective sigh.

Baron and Janelle called out to the two left behind.

“See you both sooner than you think!”

“We’ll pray for speedy healing and more dance!”

The music played on. Carlos lay beside her and stroked her face. She breathed his tenderness and they fell asleep, tango taking them away._wsb_410x262_CornerT

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.

stringed instruments

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.)

Sing Your Sorrow, Dance Your Joy

I was in the center of downtown Portland for our yearly Galaxy Dance Festival with my family and we watched with admiration each performance. They all swirled and implored, flirted and defied, brought an emphatic ending to one line of music and started anew with a flourish. The costumes and faces were infused with color and feeling. Stories unfolded, frenetic and quiet, subtle, intense.

And there were the women of India, their peacock majesty, each face strongly defined. Their beauty alone stuns. The dances tease and taunt, demand our attention, even with the tiniest movement of fingers and eyes. No one can say they are not illustrious and rarified in their offerings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a youthful modern dance group dancing in the fountain, leaping and strutting. They made the spouting water another partner in their choreographic designs. I watched a child of four or so jump in with them, body quick and at ease, her movements mimicking their own. She is a dancer already, and she was without fear or constraint and strained against her mother’s hands when pulled back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tango always mesmerizes me. I see the romance bloom in each small gesture, the angle of heads, the subtle shapes made with legs and arms, their feet quick and elegant as the couples turned and slid around the floor. The music, poignant and distinctive, beckons one into another world, another time.

But, in the end, it is the flamenco I most come to see. Duende, spark of life that gives us tears and laughter, unfurls before us. I hear it in the cantaora’s voice as she sings cante flamenco, feel it in the complex clapping of hands or palmas, the stomp and whisper of feet. Each bailora’s body and face hold the energy of the world together for those brief moments.

Cante flamenco speaks to me of the terrible sweetness of love. It brings the laughter of youthful dreams. The music and dance tell of hope gained and lost. The women and men, old and young, share their tales. Birth and death play out on this terrain, and also there is both compassion and passion that keep our lives moving from start to end. Flamenco is a light in the confounding darkness. Incandescent. Powerful. It is not for everyone, but it speaks to me. I yearn to join them but call out encouragement, whistle and clap., my feet drumming on the hot concrete.

I grew up dancing. I am not speaking of dance classes; I went to those for years but recall little of them. Dance came to me like running came to others–and I loved to run and tumble, too. I danced in the yard, in the living room, with or without music. Exulted in creating forms with sinew and soul. When I was fifteen I attended a renowned summer arts camp. The dance building overlooked a green lake and when I danced I felt as though I had left the room with mirrors and leapt above water and pines. I was that happy. But I had gone to Interlochen to study voice and cello, so dance was one of the secret doors to freedom. I savored every class and performance and held them close in order to take them back home for the long winter months.

In the novel I wrote, the main character is a dancer. She cannot speak a word of traumatic events, cannot move beyond the damage done. After months of inertia she finally finds her feet again–she dances the sorrow until it transmutes into joy. It speaks for her and she is saved, in part, by dancing her way through the barrier of grief and into life. Her body and soul reawaken.

I worked with Native American women in residential addictions treatment. Though I was the only white woman amid their community of fragile recovery, I saw that they needed more besides lectures and attentive listening. They had been betrayed and battered by life and people, had suffered some of the worst experiences I have ever been told. At the time it occurred to me they needed to share music in their own languages and tell stories old and new. This was good, but there was more to be done. There was too much memory of pain lodged in muscle and bone. The women were so taut with anger or they were bowed over with weariness that they forgot their bodies were their friends.

So, we stretched until they grumbled. And then we danced. We snaked around the room and down corridors where my co-workers stuck their heads out the doors. We shouted and clapped unison rhythms and danced into the field behind the treatment facility. And kept on dancing. This became a weekly happening and many more women joined us. They came not for therapy. They came for joy.

I would like to dance flamenco before I am too old. I have a tricky heart that won’t always do what it should despite several medical interventions. I would just like to pound my feet into the forgiving earth and shape air with my hands, move hands and hips as though every movement matters. I want to dance, as well as live this life, from my center.

We will see if I can find my way to learning flamenco. It could be that cante and baile are too much for this woman. I might swoon from the effort of it, and the crazy fun. Meanwhile, I dance around the house, across the street, under the trees. I dance with music blaring, alone, because it matters to my life. And if I ever happen to die dancing, my heart overcome with the wonder of it, I will be happy.

“My sorrow I express in song

For singing is crying

My joy I express in dance

For dancing is laughing!”

from Language of the Gypsies

Music, Starlight and Bug Bites: Living the Dream at Camp

The cabin was cocooned in darkness, save for the wan daybreak light that found its way between the cotton curtains. I lay still and listened to the sighs, coughs, and peaceful exhaling of sixteen adolescent girls and a much older (or so it seemed to me) counselor. There were other creatures rustling around in the night, beyond the sturdy cabin door. I longed to see them. Maybe it was a sleek fox or a fat, confident racoon. It was possible there was a bear trundling through the pines to the lake or a rabbit burowing deeper. Earlier in the day I’d spotted a shy skunk sniffing the winsome summer breeze. I’d been very still, noting it luxuriant fur, its darting eyes and tiny paws. Happily, it had vanished without leaving me a calling card.

The girl in the bunk beside me stretched in her sleep, then all was silent excepting a mosquito or two that had refused to turn in for the night. I swatted, this time successfully. A light wind slipped through a screened window and swept across my face. It carried its own perfume, cool and redolent of all things wild and wonderful. Sleep overcame the night for another hour.

Before long, morning was punctured by the voices of my cabin mates. There was the promise of sunshine and blue sky. After eggs and toast at the Mess Hall, I lugged my cello to the small fieldstone building in a cluster of pines and birches. It had two, four-paned windows that opened from side hinges, and was big enough for perhaps two people, a music stand and instruments. I positioned myself in the chair, cello held steady between my knees, then tightened the rosined horse hair on the bow. Tuned the strings. Placed the foldable metal music stand just so, the concerto opened and ready. Leaned into it, its glowing wood against my already-damp shirt: hands, fingers, play. Sing for me.

If I wanted to keep first chair in the youth orchestra I would have to work much harder. Gazing out the window at sunlight rich as honey, I attacked a rigorous passage. I played by heart and the multitudinous notes beckoned and taunted me. A large black beetle opened its wings, flew and landed by my foot. Bees buzzed. I closed my eyes. My calloused (but sometimes still tender) fingertips slid along the strings. My cello unleashed the sounds I sweated over, coaxed. This time, at least.

And so it went. The day filled up with orchestra rehearsal, then modern dance class at the large stone dance building where dozens of windows opened to the lake below. Later, a quick lunch, and then to a creative writing class held by a stoney beach. What did we really see, our pencils poised above notebooks? Our eyes observed white sails of a Sunfish, green canoes and rowboats sturdy and slow. There were old docks and kids splashing each other during free time, which awaited me after this class. I took it all in, and what I saw was a small heaven on earth: all the arts unfolding, nature sharing its secrets, everyone creating to their hearts’ content.

I was at Interlochen’s National Music Camp again, 1964.

Evening was mysterious and comforting at once. There were several performances to choose from if we weren’t playing, ourselves. This included plays , musicals or operettas and dance concerts, most offered on open air stages. Leaning back on a green bench, I would scan the sky for Orion or Cassiopeia, the Big and Little Dipper. Venus, ever imperious, danced in place. The lush swells and complicated puzzles of music came and went, the old masters’ works awakened once more in the hands and voices of children and young adults. Mosquitoes circled and buzzed, attacked and moved on. The slap-slapping of lake water was the welcoming sound of something like home. My friends and I whispered among ourselves about the campfire later, the potential for clandestine meetings with boys.

It could seem a hard place to be, Interlochen. It meant tough discipline and long hours of study and practice, sweaty days and nights without much privacy or many physical comforts. There was no other music but the music we made, no television to while away the time. But it was here that I found the privledge of time and many means to fan my passion to create. It was here that I got to step a bit away from family roles and school year pressures or worries. Here I could attend to what I truly loved.

Besides the arts, I had acres of land filled with lakes, rocks and fascinating insects to study; throngs of lovely trees that had lived longer than I ever would. An encounter with leeches that left me aghast and smarter. Firelight and starlight that held tentaive overtures of romance. A green-blue lake with a murky bottom that offered unbridled play. And right beside me, were youth from all around the world who cared about the same things. I was part of something very good, something much bigger than each of us alone.

All this comes to me after reading an article recently that summer camps in the U.S are still going strong. The magazine was glossy and the camps likely formidably expensive. Still, it heartened me. There are camps for children of nearly any means and ways to get money to attend. They are sought after for many reasons, and the diverse skills gained and friendships made endure and bring back the kids and, later their kids. But they clearly come back for the fun of it. There is being away from parents, getting introduced to the real outdoors, finding something new and surprising in the course of a day, and sinking into a gentle sleep at the end of day. There is learning a lesson or two, such as discovering that what may seem too challenging–from backwoods tenting to learning a sonata, from hitting a target with a swift arrow to executing a pas de deux–can be well met and enjoyed.

There were other music and church camps, as well as a great day camp in my hometown that I looked forward to each summer in my elementary school years. But the  Interlochen experience informed my whole life. It so imbued me with wonder, resilience and a desire to reach high no matter what I choose to do, that I have talked about it for over forty years. I am finally completing a novel that shares an essence of those times. Not surprisingly for me, it is partly about the healing that is sparked by the potent combination of nature and human creativity.

Tonight, I can easily recall those signature strains from Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 30 “Romantic” that we all played–the last concert of camp. The resonant strings,  lithe harp, those glorious french horns. Anyone who has heard it as a camper knows what I mean. It still stirs me, and cheers me onward.

Send your child to a great camp this year. It will be a dreamy summer of a lifetime.