Visualize This: Creating and Creator, an Intimate Life (please hold the applause)

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You know how it’s become pop psychology/spirituality to visualize something, hold it in your mind with surety and expectation of success? Maybe even draw a picture of it or write it down in bold letters to make it more concrete. Then stare at it until memorized. Take time to fully focus on the one heartfelt goal. We are assured this will help us make that goal materialize. What we want needs more formal shape to latch onto or it might slip away into the fog of nothingness. So get to visualizing and what we fervently hope for, we will eventually get. Right?

If I take a hard look at that idea, I’ll admit I’ve not been an all-out fan. I have not often constructed a definitive conclusion for anything way ahead of time. I don’t imagine a final fabulous product of my efforts– or if it is imagined at all, vaguely, in passing. It seems almost counter-productive, rather than a sure avenue to full materialization. I don’t want to limit outcomes; it is difficult to know what will be best in the final rendering. (And I say this although I am a writer. I don’t make up things, not really; they make unbridled appearances while insisting I write them. More on that later.)

There are reasons why this visualization business is not my chosen methodology for accomplishing things.

The first is that I don’t believe in an easy magic (visualize=realize) when working toward something. I find it a bit insulting that one would think I’d believe in that. This is based on experience; my entire semi-rebuttal is based on real events. (I qualify it as semi since the concept is more complicated than it appears.) Visualizing feels good, it can stir up motivation. It might provide relief from the gritty work that must be done. But it doesn’t guarantee anything more than a sense of expectancy, a hopeful respite from variable reality.

There are always exceptions. For one thing, I know that visualizing healing processes for my beleaguered muscle of a heart likely has made a difference. I thought of each procedure being done, how it carefully fixed things and further researched how all parts work together. Linking this to calls on the One Above, a far wiser resource for life wellness, further helped move me from illness into states of repair. Finally to returned well being. But I commit to getting up and running each time I have to rebound. I have also seen people self-heal. But this is other territory, an impressive intersection of the scientific and perhaps mystical. It’s not mere magic, fantastical trickery or just thinking good thoughts. It’s amazing.

But all that is not the sort of thing I refer to when noting I am not a such a cheerleader of visualizing Clear End Results.

I have written of growing up in a competitive, achieving family, with parents who held high expectations. It wasn’t wrong; it wasn’t right. Such an orientation can spur a youngster on to greater things; it may also create perfectionism that is damaging. Or some of both. Each child is built differently but the belief was that we all were capable and so had things to accomplish. We were tasked with doing as well as possible because it would be foolish to not do so. Even more, an insult to family and God to shrug off abilities, opportunities. Thus, I learned about self discipline from a very young age. I did what was required to conform to the cozy family unit. I liked my parents, admired them, enjoyed my siblings generally, appreciated challenges I was given. It wasn’t hard to be thus trained–this was the American way my friends and I grew up with during the fifties and sixties. I didn’t chafe for many years within those parameters, under firm directives. It lent security to have clarity about cause and effect, the rewards of civilized behavior and meaningful work. Or lack thereof if there was significant deviation.

This is not reflective of rigid gender roles that might have hemmed us in. My parents were forward-looking, educated and happily employed. They expected the best from us regarding scholastics and personal development. (If a brother or I had had a talent for cooking or sewing like my mother we may have learned and done that, as well, but I had less than said brother.) The Christian faith certainly guided us all. But I did not find it restrictive.

I mostly felt strong, confident and tackled what was before me, my life aimed at the goal of excellence. I worked to do as well as possible: to dance and figure skate, sing, play cello, act in plays, write poetry/ plays/stories, stay on the honor roll in school, cheerlead, make decent friends, do good things via church. My main motto by sixth grade was “Excellence Above All;” it was put all over my notebooks as other girls were covering theirs with boys’ names and flowery doodles. And I believed in its shining virtue. So this was a kind of early creative visualization practiced many years: Imagine the very best you can do, practice for mastery of each step or technique, work more, correct and then eliminate errors, practice harder until the result is what was envisioned. Needed. Required. Perfection if at all possible.

And then something gradually occurred that began to change me. I recall how it all began and what it felt like even now.

I was learning much could happen due to disciplined effort and time well used. The goals were rewarded when you took right steps and got to it. They indeed brought about consequences: applause, attention and accolades. Admiration. Ribbons and medals garnered for competitions won. Opportunities to perform more, entry to rigorous music camps. Skating events demanding more hours. Writing praised at a young age, published and displayed at a child education conference. With all this came greater expectations, more unrelenting work. So many people to please, oh my.

There was satisfaction in it, of course. I was a born performer or appeared to be, someone who naturally got out there, wanted to DO things. For a anyone who knows what it is to stand on the wide stage,heavy velvet curtains swinging open to reveal waiting audience and then a spotlight locates you… and then your song, dance or character is bit by bit revealed by your voicing and movements….well, it is thrilling, yes. It is darned fun. And the applause is that longed-for reward, the answer you had hoped for, appreciation and acceptance by peers, even. And for the audience has experienced satisfaction, too. If there are any other material gains to be gotten, you wait awhile backstage or pace hallways, breathless, until the final vote comes in that you measured up. After a decent performance, whether on ice rink or stage, people find you, circle about, press flowers, compliments and hugs onto you. And the most final, coveted word comes from parents: that I did well or that I did not quite manage this one, after all.

So it went, years after year. And I went along with it, busy and making gains.

Then, at around fourteen or fifteen, there was a turn that I took. Those rewards began to feel slight, temporary and in fact, were not what I truly wanted. They were feeling heavy with responsibility. Granted, I had some issues going on–I was a teenager, first of all; second and third, I was a survivor of abuse (not from immediate family) and taking prescribed drugs to alleviate symptoms. But this aha moment was about creativity and performance, two things that mattered most in all the world to me. My safest and happiest place, the arts. I fit there  just right yet I wasn’t feeling so giddy about those outcomes.

I remember being in a shadowy and dusty, rope-slung, prop-filled backstage, chatting with others after performing. The stage hands were shouting and doing their work.It was where activity first concentrated just following a concert or show, with performers thanking friends and family and teachers for their appreciation as they headed to change clothes. I gazed out onto that stage, the lighting softer, then dimming to nothing. and suddenly all I wanted was to disappear with it. To be free of expectations, the smiling and talking and being surrounded by excited faces. Who were these people? How much did they matter? How much of it was that my father was a beloved public figure/musician and so it was expected of me (and the rest of us) to excel? How much of it all was necessary? Which was better, playing cello or singing on a stage or in my room? The place I felt most at home was playing and singing and writing in the woods of Interlochen, the summer music camp I attended (along with my siblings, where my father also taught). Being with others who had the same passions. Why did that matter so much more than being recognized as capable?

For a couple more years I decided to perform only for myself, stay right in the moment for the art, itself. It worked so well, it scared me. The results were even better. But more ever than before, I leaned toward wanting the experiences for myself–to the consternation of parents and teachers. (Let it be known that being a talented child born into talented multi-generations of family within a smaller community is a  strange and difficult thing.) Why was I easing off? There were plans to address, a future to consider.

Sure, it was the performing arts, not private and static arts. But then it came to me: it was the doing of it that I loved best, the literal creating of something, giving shape and more freedom to music, making a bold call with soul and body, finding life in even the full, rich pauses. It was inhabiting deeply solitary work, being moved by unfolding of more creation. The merging with the vitality of one note, a word that seeks another, an array of feelings speaking one to the other. Becoming more alive in the center of devotion to the moment, the messy and despairing and elated work of it, that chasing and opening and finding. Losing myself, beauty and mystery awakening of its own accord. My own self only an instrument–mind and heart useful for a blossoming of something truer if I allowed and encouraged it.

This was what I loved about writing: it required no audience if I chose not to let it out into the world. It was alive in a very small space as it flowed from my mind and hands. A character or even observation needed no applause to sit up and start walking, finding company and goofing off or forging ahead, getting into this or that. And so I horded the time I had to write things for my own mind and my eyes. It was  mine first and last if I said nothing of it. And I found myself singing out anything at all that I desired when the house was empty, fingers crashing across the keyboard of our baby grand piano. And I was happy for that much.

So, I realized that acting on creative urges wasn’t actually about those trimmings,  nor was meeting the wishes of various factions. It wasn’t even the end result that felt momentous. It was the steady making of music, crafting a dance, honing spins and figures on ice, the delving deep into language and finding grab bags of treasures. I wanted to be fully moved, gathered into authentic experience as I made my way through passages spiritually, emotionally, physically. To be myself yet stretched far beyond self. And to do that, I saw I might need to forego robust applause or stern judgment. Or at least take a break. Because at that time it felt inauthentic more often than not.

Making any kind of art is first and last an intimate act. I needed more privacy with it, a quietness where smallest stirrings could be felt, even intuited. And needed to celebrate the living parts, not only the tedium of attempting mastery. Let the songs or stories be whatever they chose. I could shepherd them. I could tend them until they were done browsing and fattening. I had some skills and I had passion for it, and I learned more each time I started again. And as I saw that was more the way I wanted to go, there came relief. It wasn’t perhaps as secure as before. Stepping away from the rhythm, the meter, that composition of a well-trained life, that protective cocoon, I found myself falling far as well as rising up.

Many things happened that pulled me from the youthful life of performance and achievement, aiming for the next valued high bar. By the time I was out of high school, I was often using drugs legally and illegally. I soon sang less. I was not a bar singer (tried being in a bar band and hated it), not any more a classical “art” singer, no longer appearing in musicals. Jazz was still too new to me since I had rarely even heard it growing up. I was a hippie so sang folk songs, while privately I still wrote other songs, helped by keyboards and my guitar. They had been stirred up in me at a young age and kept nagging. But I rarely performed. My college friends and I sang in crowds at music festivals, smoke-filled living rooms, sometimes alone at coffee houses where everyone was loaded, so pleased. I studied art history and painting, sociology and literature and writing in college. In time, I sang and played my cello not at all. I got married. Ice skated and danced now and then. I painted as if possessed, wrote long into the night. Participated in poetry readings. The last activity was the closest I got to more regular performances. But it was different than years before. This time, It was entirely my choice to perform, as well as how and what.And it was with other poets.

Over this past Christmas I decided to share an old tape put together in 1978 for my parents, when I was twenty-eight.I don’t recall if they said anything, so likely they did not. I rarely made music after marriage and three, then five kids to raise. There wasn’t time or energy left.

That recent night I shyly gathered two visiting daughters and put it on. There was one song created during my early twenties that I thought they might appreciate. I was afraid, really, to show such a private thing as a song I wrote, sang, loved. They listened intensely. I soon saw they felt tearful so I closed my eyes. Waited. Not for anything, really, just for the song to be finally done, my twenty-something voice to stop being so plaintive. And for them to know what it had meant to me to make, to do such things.

“That was amazing, Mama, but why did you stop? How could you have stopped writing and singing songs like this? I didn’t know you were a songwriter, too!” My youngest daughter’s face, this one who sings like a jazzed-up lark, has even recorded but she has a career in the arts with little time so her own music has stepped back.She was incredulous, happy. Sad.

As if I had somehow let them down, me down. Or was that just in my mind, that old echo ringing in my ears? The fears of failure, the losses endured?

My oldest daughter, the visual artist–who sings so sweetly under her breath, once played a pure flute– looked away, hair falling over her wide-eyed face, infamous composure crumbling, her silence speaking loudly.

The tautness of truth rings like a wire disturbed; revealing one’s self can be painful for all sides. Don’t cry, I wanted to say, please do not cry for me but only any beauty you can find there. It was only this song I want you to have and keep.

I hadn’t expected such a response. I took a tremulous breath, willed myself to be calm. Lighter. This was no time to say more than intended or wise. “Thank you for listening to it. ..Music was really that great a part of me. And it remains, somehow. Life changes things; then I changed priorities. I had all that music humming inside me so sometimes made more songs. I sang some to you kids, you just didn’t know what they were. But for the most part I stopped making and singing them, at all.” I managed to smile, lingered over their shining eyes, their love. “I write stories and poems, as you know. That creative activity became my truest passion.”

The vulnerable moments inched away, that window when they saw me for a separate person, the woman I always was and still am–it closed a bit. And they do know writing and I are made for each other, that it isn’t ever about being “known.” They have read my poems and prose, comment intelligently. We talked of art in general and I was flooded with tenderness. Was glad I had shared it. That meant something. Not being on any stage. Not even any accomplishment.

I by now probably lack any driving forces of ambition along with the correct successful visualization. But the fact is, I am rarely free of visualizations whether I want them or not. The brain naturally conspires to brainstorm– and acknowledges no clock. And I know how to work very hard and quite long hours. But still, I am not yet, if ever, envisioning publishing a book, for instance. A poem here, yes, a story there. I am just too busy writing, thinking of writing, rewriting in the middle of a dream, on a walk, even when talking to someone. I am getting older. My hands are not as fast as the words that want to play and cry out and make clear. It hits me anew that time is scarcer, worth more.

Besides, we all know life is essentially pretty random. I mean, how much reality can we hope to control? Can a visionary plan make things happen? I don’t know. Work can, often. Passion matters. For me, it may take more toil and trouble than I care to know. I learned some basic lessons (“let go, let God; keep it simple; easy does it but do it; one day at a time; forgive and love one another “) the hard way awhile ago.

Mostly random, not carefully planned, is this life. It seems that what has happened year after year has been revealed to me unbidden as I trod fresh and worn paths through the uncoiling years. The surprises have been my guides and glorious wonderments the unexpected gifts, and any successes seem more like flukes or kindnesses than deserved good fortune. Everyone has visions of what life could or should be, a hope that their finest dreams endure. I have been lucky, overall. Not money, not status. Just joy in many different activities, embracing a kaleidoscope of inspirations. I keep making do with such fascinating pickings. The discovery I seek happens right now. Purposeful acts of creation go right on with or without me, it’s a well known truth. I am not the point of all this, the story is. I long ago wanted and still want first to be a small conduit for good things and know, too, the blessing and power of such a thing.

You have to adore what you want and be loyal, love yourself well enough, and then design something from the lovely mess as you go. Maybe without visualizations we cannot begin to see all options, but the heart’s desire tends to entrench itself. Just get ready, set, go.

Here, I also write for those who come to read. And so now I will engage in visualizing, in case it works better than I imagine:May all who seek, find their truest, best selves and thus find the Divine within untidy mishaps and good tasks of each day’s living. This vision looks like light spilling from a main point way out there to all other points, more light to and from you, then spiraling back. I call that a prayer but it could be a song, a line of poetry, a dance of angels, a thought that vanishes on quickening wind.

 

Space and Time to Celebrate Family

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(A gathering in 1964)

Because I am soon off to visit my brother, along with a gaggle of other family members, I thought I’d share a bit before I board the plane. I am more a traveler by car so this trip, non-stop, requires a good reason. Much of my family is converging on the other side of the country to celebrate W.’s seventieth birthday in a few days. It seems preposterous we all could have aged so, but certainly it’s a blessing we’re yet here on earth and engaged in hearty living. To that end, there will even be a nephew arriving from Germany. The party will be a good one.

December is a month full of meaningful dates. It occurs to me my mother’s birthday was this month; I wonder if she will attend in in spirit, which would be like her. And a dear grandson will be turning eight the day I fly back home. But, too, I must say–because he is so much on my mind–that I lost another nephew far too soon one December. I grieve his passing, still. And Christmas is coming up, a time of faith that matters to me spiritually, far less so materially.

Family. We all have complicated families. I read once that those who maintain congenial family relationships tend to fare better as they age–particularly if one feels close to siblings. There is comfort in familiarity (notice the root word there!), the forbearance and forgiving acceptance that being blood-connected offer us, and a love that cannot be shared in quite the same way with any other.

Besides, in my family we share: similar cowlicks, white hair generally arriving quite early (I am the odd one with more auburn brown still), large and mostly blue eyes, mental and physical stamina, musicality, and a tendency to believe all things possible, even good things. We love to hope, learn and create. We also can be fussy and critical, high-handed, overly generous rescuers, perfectionistic, easily moved by suffering and kept awake by troubles here and afar. We pull toward God, those ancient teachings a divine compass, yet we can be too demanding of ourselves and others. Fervency can be a pro or con here but at least we have passion.

I have written of my family before, most recently of the aforementioned brother on Veteran’s Day. What could possibly interest you further? I’ve told a few tales about five children growing up in a two-story bungalow in a small Michigan city. Our father was a music educator and administrator, a conductor and musician. Our mother, an elementary school teacher. For some years she was a stay-at-home mom, which translates into being the CEO of a home-based business: a large family with drive, wide-ranging goals and assorted needs and deeds. We were (and are) a slew of “doers”. That meant keeping track of intricate schedules for each one, not to mention my father, who was so busy his recalled presence is at times like a blur except for dinner and Sunday mornings. Then he slowed down, sat (often with a symphony score at hand), talked with us. Quizzed us on various topics. It was like school at home and we all had something to say.

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(Birthday brother and our father and a shared appreciation of cameras)

W. is much like my father, with his passion for history and music and his artistic eye, a genial way with people and generous laugh. Today I got a text message from my sister-in-law: they were on their way to perform with a small choir at a White House holiday reception. It doesn’t surprise me; they remain professional singers (not their actual vocations) though they are retired. W. plays viola well but his voice is lovely. We all used to gather together around the baby grand at my parents’ house, five kids singing and/or playing an instrument, a mini-orchestral experience. Our father accompanied us on piano and directed; my mother watched from the kitchen door.

You can see where this has gone: family reunions unlock the door to memories and it is an experience that recalls sounds and smells, feelings, specific slices of life. The way my father’s eyes warmed (yes, twinkled), his laugh when sharing a new pun. The way my mother touched the side of her nose with an index finger while regaling us with a story. It might have been what happened as she walked to the store yet it was somehow funny and fascinating.

I am the youngest of the bunch. My two brothers and two sisters were off to college when I was barely thirteen. W. is more a known entity today, despite the miles. One of the sweet pleasures of being an adult is getting to know your siblings as co-adults. I feel fortunate; there is not one I am not proud to know, and I look forward to being in their company.

If holidays triggers nostalgia, then family reunions bring reality into sharper focus. No one is without flaws or quirks; we are all creative types and strong-willed, but were taught to be kind and civilized. Laughter will embellish conversations. Debate will be commonplace. I am sure there will be discussion of our diminishing extended family, events we recall from our youth, the passing of pictures to exclaim over. There will be feasting around tables. Music: it goes without saying, whether we sing, attend a concert or listen to the stereo. And since W. is a professional photographer, as well, his cameras will be recording details. The schedule for five days will be orderly with some room for spontaneity. My brother’s house will accommodate us, people wall-to-wall. I look forward to the “side-by-side” composition of our meeting, rubbing shoulders, exchanging hugs.

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(Childhood home)

When all seven of us, our friends and father’s music students were present in the house it was cramped. Often it felt lacking in privacy, was noisy and action-packed. I would climb the backyard maple tree with notebook and pen, breathe and think, plan faraway jaunts and dreams. After my siblings departed for the next stage of life there was such gaping space, a swell of silence that at times unnerved me. Then I’d sit on my bed and marvel at finally having my very own huge (so it seemed) room. I felt suddenly like an only child for the next several years, with the high and low points that came with it.

We can’t go back to the house on Ashman Street–no one wants to return to childhood, really, and my parents are long gone. But this is even better. Each of us grew up, became individuated beyond the group as everyone does with good fortune. Our lives have at times been challenged, even fragmented, then stitched together and made whole again. We have many interesting years between us, voluminous talk to share. We will develop new snapshots while tending and savoring each moment. Age has sculpted our faces and no one knows just what lies ahead. So now we make space and time enough to celebrate my brother and, too, these enduring and deepened family ties.

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(My brother and me)

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

Why I Love to Whistle: A History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrate Ties that Bind

DSCF7458We strolled among acres of tulips, fields spreading out like a quilt of electric color. It was a Pacific Northwest spring day unlike most, sun warming our faces and magnifying bright hues of flowers. Marinell gazed over the swaths of color, a smile warming her hazel eyes. Allanya noted varieties of tulips, making a list of those she might purchase. I was clicking away, each picture a frame of transient beauty captured. Flower season is not lengthy; blossoms wither and fall. The purpose of flowers, after all, is not to last forever but to offer pollen to bees who pollinate so next year we get to witness another display of beauty. The Cascade Mountains rose above Skagit County tulip fields in a show of stark permanency amidst the temporal, echoing our shared family moments.

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My sisters and I have had a years-long tradition of allotting time together each spring,  a “sisters getaway”, generally a long week-end freed of work and family obligations. M. is thirteen years older than I am, old enough to have helped my mother care for me when I was born. She has lived in the Seattle area for twenty-five years. A. is five years older, once a squabbling partner who became an important part of my daily life since we both reside in Oregon.

Although the three of us have been only 3.5 hours apart, we see one another on average four times a year during family gatherings. Our separate time ensures our own time, doing and speaking as we please. We have travelled to other destinations, walked many paths in village, city and country, shopped, and visited museums, gardens, exhibits, galleries. We enjoy learning things, exploring new territory, sharing enthusiasm for places and people. And as we go about sharing many interests including the arts, books, nature, psychology, travel to name a few, we talk.

We swap tales of family history and how we each experienced growing up–not necessarily so much alike, as we each have our own perspective and moments. We compare and comment on our trials, errors and successes which have been thought-provoking to witness. M. has been a professional cellist. A. has been an executive director of several non-profit organizations. Since we are not all committed to the same faith practices we explore beliefs and what has impacted us spiritually. Disposed to analytical thought, we have probing discussions on everything from social issues to natural phenomena.   We often just meander from topic to topic. And in the process, we laugh readily and often. And cry, at times. We are also very good at putting up with each other as needed.

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This visit, however, was different.  We stayed at M.’s house instead of going off on a small adventure. The house, in fact, that is being put up for sale next week. She and her husband are moving to a southwestern state, closing one chapter of their industrious, fulfilling lives and beginning another. A. and I assisted in the sorting and tossing process. We each ended up with mementos, some of which were photographs of our extended family. I felt a deepening quietude as I scanned the pictures of family dinners and celebrations, lingering over images of those no longer with us. The picture of my parents’ back yard awakened my heart. Was it always so beautiful, the modest yard that hosted croquet and other games, barbeques served at the round wooden table with the umbrella, gatherings around the maple tree where we all climbed and swung on the old swing? The green shadows are dappled with playful light. Still, the life lived there, along with our two brothers and parents, was not a life without strife. Some of my memories are a blur imbued with an urgent need for peace and a longing for happiness that would not be dismantled by loss and pain. I study the pictures of my teen-age years and wonder over my seeming confidence despite secret struggles. The dining table is circled by family members who were accomplished, good-hearted and, naturally, flawed. But it was nonetheless a family life powered by the energy of love.

I studied the many decades-old portrait of M. taken a few years after she was named homecoming queen, an event that awed me as a child. A local photographer deemed her so lovely that her picture was entered into a contest and subsequently published. She had and has a humility that is noteworthy. This sister-woman who weathered a lifetime of challenges also profoundly enjoyed various fruits of her labors. I watched her as she spoke now and there it was: the same graciousness, soft but insightful gaze, a smile that emanated good humor. Her wavy hair is mostly white now, but she is the same big sister who so carefully watched over me as a little girl. Who I admired from a distance of thirteen years difference yet was lucky enough to get to know closely after growing up. Whose cello playing mesmerized me all the years we all practiced our instruments. I took up cello, too, because she did. In fact, all of us girls played cello at one time or another but she worked hardest at honing skills and considerable talent.

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One of the nights together we sat in her music room and looked through music, some of which belonged to our father once. There were the old songbooks of standards. She stood n ear the grand piano. It, too, would be soon sold. The thought was more than I could bear as I remembered the baby grand in my parents’ home, and the shock I felt when I came back to find it long gone. So I asked M. to play for us. She chose a couple of songs I used to love to sing as she or our father accompanied. She stopped too soon for me, the last notes echoing in the room.

How do I say “farewell, have a good and happy new life in Texas” to my oldest sister? Of course, it is what my intention is when the day arrives for leave-taking. I know she is just moving from one space to another. I understand we will all see each other here or there, that A. and I will fly down to visit or meet up somewhere in between, perhaps each spring.

IMG_2851But it somehow feels as if she is going far away, just like the day she went off to college and I stood in the doorway waving, bewildered, at age five. And this feeling rises to the top of the laughter, hearty tales of tough and triumphant growing up years, and becoming older the best way we can, with lots of grit and the force of joy. This sadness floats and spreads out over my morning and brings me tears. Nothing stays the same, I know. And there is merit in that.

Then I am saved by this: we are sisters first and last, despite the relationships that have come and gone, the changing fortunes, the  health crises that can derail us each. We are of the same family and so, also, three who share a heart.

The last night together we talked by the warmth of a fire, right into the early morning. When we were emptied of stories, we hugged one another close. M. said: “We have all survived!” meaning we have all made our way through this wilderness called life and been able to call up enough strength and gumption to stay the course thus far. We have sought God and found faith a constant flame. We have elicited and shared laughter that lights up the deepest dark. We have made it together and also apart. Life in the final analysis is very good, indeed.

We straggled off to bed, only to arise the last morning to attack more sorting and tossing. It was a chore made lighter for M., but it was all just stuff. One house is soon to be exchanged for another house and furnishings. It is people who will make the difference for her as they do for us all. For now, she had sisters working side by side with her. And the fact is, the love that binds us has no state line, no expiration date, not here or in eternity.

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