This Music of Joy Will Never End

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Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan; entrance area. This wishing well remains from my stays in the 1950s-60s but now is filled with earth and plants. I wanted to toss a coin in but glad it has stayed put. (All photos by this writer other than photos Marc took of me.)

(Please note there are captions for the many Interlochen pictures; just hover with your mouse over photo.)

The symphony of winds rushing and skipping through acres of broad leaf and conifer trees, lake water slapping then gliding along a strip of shore: these sounds long ago saturated my brain and blood. The sonic tableau is further enhanced with human-created instruments and voices. The musical phenomena in which nature and people collaborate gifted me with a series of wonderment. My times spent attending internationally renowned Interlochen Summer Arts Camp (overshadowing all other camps) remain potent points of grace arising from a crucible of trying times.

I stay the impulse to write of my beloved father, how he taught and conducted orchestras there in the richness of summer’s glow. I might tell a bit about my four older siblings who studied, practiced and performed on their own respective instruments–cello( my oldest sister; also me), clarinet, viola, flute, bassoon and more as they changed preferences. And a couple of them later became summer counselors for the younger campers. Oh, wait, my oldest daughter taught art there for two summers. But they have their own stories.

And I will not be writing at length regarding the illustrious history of Interlochen Center for the Arts, both an arts camp (established in 1928) and soon a boarding fine arts high school school, other than to say it has offered programs for aspiring artists from grades 3 to 12 who have come from around the world. The place has expanded since I attended to include a College of Creative Arts, as well.

I’m not very interested in cataloging triumphs or failures (for example, I won first chair in the cello section of orchestra one summer only to lose it to my still good friend and far better cellist, Susan). Nor teachers’ strengths or weaknesses; the stress of competing against talented kids from all over the world; cramped yet lovely rustic cabin life; the regimen of getting up at the crack of dawn and flopping into bed exhausted, too tired to gossip or plan hijinks. And when allowed breaks, the best thing was to sit lakeside and sip a soda or dash off a letter home. And visualize a future in the arts, that shining life of work and inner rewards–and perhaps outer.

It was, in truth, not a time so much of great youthful fun as it was strictly scheduled and enforced hours as each worked at perfecting one’s capabilities as a young artist who was engaged in performing and visual arts. In short, it was intensive summer school for kids with many talents, but conducted in the midst of beautiful forested acreage by a lake. And it was heavenly regardless of the toil that came with it. I was thirteen and fourteen then fifteen and by then “excellence above all”was a main credo. It was the family’s, as well, as music and striving were seemingly what was needed; it felt natural.

My fingers ached, even bled at times despite thick calluses formed; my shoulders muscles bunched and sometimes spasmed after hours of practice in small field stone “huts”, side windows opened to a pungent, damp breeze. Still, sweat rolled down back and chest in high summer, my cello sticking to the bare spots of skin that hugged it. At night, it cooled enough. As I walked dirt paths through a bluish-lavender twilight, my cello snug at my side, music still swirled about as I passed Interlochen Bowl, an open air stage full of performers. It was as if music and other mysterious energies moved the very atmosphere I breathed.  I felt, at times, as if I had walked through an opening to an idyllic garden of delights. Nothing was the same there as the outside world; all was finer, richer, sweeter. Tough but better. And at home I had plenty of creative engagement. This was just, well…Interlochen.

Perhaps as I finished voice lessons (hoping I’d have a chance to ace the audition for a musical theater production) I’d slip into the dark, musky backstage at Grunow Theater, spellbound as chameleon actors rehearsed. My small notebook would soon be full of messy notes for future reference…for something, I was certain. I learned more about the arc of storytelling, of drama’s effect when leavened with humor. And witnessed again the enchantment of imagination’s constructs. How I longed to tell such stories: a heavy velvet curtain swinging open, revealing a saga of human loving, toiling and dreaming. I started to consider playwriting more seriously, a leap from silliness I made up as a kid.

I also learned the basics of playing a full-sized harp, a resonant and wondrous thing, and thought for a couple of years that would become my instrument, it was so amazing to me and felt not so unnatural to play. In the end it was not. Frankly, it seemed too big to deal with as well as complicated to ever master.

I had taken some dance classes as all female children did back then, at least those who liked to jump about or impress their mothers. But I hadn’t had years of strenuous ballet study like the lithe dancers at Interlochen. Nonetheless, I visited the Dance Building often, in awe of flexible, strong girls who laced up their pointe slippers. It was a favorite place to take a break. I had secretly loved to dance almost as much as making music and writing. I just hadn’t had time with so many musical activities and other pursuits, and it was not encouraged by my parents. So, one summer I decided to take an elective for fun, a beginning modern dance class. My heart pounded as I prepared. Self-conscious in my snug black leotard and very pink tights, new ballet shoes so constricting. I longed to fling them off, run and leap. Maybe I was too athletically inclined to hope to dance there.

(Please click this time on circles for captions.)

The dance teacher whose name I’ve forgotten watched me as I perspired through exacting warm ups. The glimmering Green Lake was behind our building and there were so many windows that blessedly, swift gusts from open water helped cool the vast mirrored room and us. I worked as the piano accompanied our movements each class, and studied my teacher and the others. I was so afraid I’d be determined to be anything but even a beginning dancer, tossed out of class. But I was determined, kept at each difficult position or move and did learn. I felt exhilaration, discomfort, mystification, deep joy of the body being freed. I felt terribly strong, similar to when I ice skated, but dance was even more interesting.

It was such a relief to give myself to movement, to not have to talk or sing or play cello–just let my body lead me, teach me. And I waited to learn a real choreographed dance, an event I considered my true reward. In a week we were making something good, and I followed each instruction, melded with others.  Took my place with anticipation, made it past the run-throughs. In a short time, we would have a whole performance to offer.

The teacher beckoned to me at the end of a class. I felt breathless; was it good news or bad?

“How long have you been dancing?” she asked, her kind face betraying nothing.

“Oh, well.” I wasn’t sure what to say. If I told the truth, would she tell me I should not be there? “I had a few years of rhythmics classes as a kid, a little ballet…not so much.”

She put her hand lightly on my shoulder and sat me down.

“Do you want to dance? Is that why you took this class or to just have a lark?”

“Oh, I love dancing, it’s wonderful being in your class. I’m a music major, though.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Because you should dance more. You have such natural talent, I’m surprised you haven’t had training. In fact, I believe you could be a real dancer, make it a career eventually.”

“What?” I felt as though in a dream, the sort you must awaken from despite it being perfect.”But I’m already fifteen! I’d never be able to compete with other talented kids who’ve worked so hard–”

“But you could. You could go home and take dance lessons and work really hard, then study dance in college and do something good.” She smiled and gave me a quick hug. “I was like you, once. I followed my dream when it didn’t make sense. I began rigorous study in university and went on as a modern dancer, dancing all over the world. And I teach here. You have promise–modern dance suits you well. You dance from a very deep place. You should consider doing this, okay?”

I didn’t feel I could answer, as tears welled up. I nodded, smiling, and left.

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A view outside the Dance Building

Modern dancing that summer was the first time I’d fully discovered safety and exhilaration living within a body that had, as a child, endured years of sexual abuse. The first time someone had told me–beyond my figure skating (perhaps more a sport to me, not quite the art I longed for)–that I was acceptable physically, even valued in rarefied worlds defined by ideas and creative activity. Instead, my young being, my flesh and bones had long been burdened with self loathing and abandonment, the lurking, subterranean fear of vulnerability. Dancing that summer along with my teacher’s firm encouragement and appreciation sparked a change in self-perception, in my desire to do more than even survive capably, if possible. Or sometimes, stay alive. Just get by. The fine teacher never even knew it. Or maybe she suspected.

Although I did not become a dancer–there were other needs, trials and goals that took precedence–I yet do dance and experience relief and joy to do so.

There was much more to those summers than dancing, singing and acting (I got a decent part in “Pirates of Penzance”; sang in concerts), playing my cello and a little harp, and learning more writing skills. There was hanging out in the dusty, smelly art studios, watching others make curious objects. And I realized I wanted to explore visual arts more, as well. There was sitting in an audience in the open air Kresge Auditorium, not just performing. Being moved far beyond my ability to verbalize my feelings as great, music was performed. The greens-to-blues lake within audience view shimmered and soothed. And there was time spent getting closer to new friends, some kindred spirits with whom I kept in touch for years, and setting out on a sailboat upon undulating waves, and gathering around campfires. It was the singing trees and the breath of sky like a scarf about me; the taste of summered water; the pulsing light and tantalizing shadow upon the paths that led me to more discovery. I was at home in the world where art was being made by many, where I, too, was following my passion to create.

My times at Interlochen heralded healthier changes while strengthening my certainty that art can salvage lives, that a grand variety of arts created and shared is more fulfilling and exciting than anything else for many thousands. For me.  I saw this in many others, how they came needing more and emerged from the time spent with something new. As I once wrote in a poem, there hopefully comes for many that “deepening at the seams”, those stitched together places where this human life tugs and even rips apart our yearning selves. We can heal those tears of the soul. Praise the ongoing design and redesign of greater moments. For me the result is a life full of empowering magic, lived with good love, and I get to be part of a worldwide community that loves to conjure something fresh, remake what is known. If only there was even more time to grab hold and give it away, tenfold.

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I have endless gratitude for this way of living, within the vast terrains of heart, soul and mind, each day and found stories like gifts I get to mine and share.

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.

Naming the Beauties and Beasts

Sitting on the rickety bench made of well-seasoned wood, I chewed on the pencil eraser. It tasted rubbery but also like words, the little and big ones I had gotten rid of while list-making. I studied my list now: Anisa, Melody, Rena, Roan, Genevieve, Carter, Tupper, Link. There were more. I updated my notebook of names sometimes daily. They were people I had not yet fully met but wondered over, with their singular lives and vast stores of knowledge, their foolishness and kindnesses. Their violent hearts. Little lies. Arms full of flowers for anyone who was lucky enough to cross their paths. Hands of love like birds nesting.

They lived and breathed just as surely as I felt the dampness of leftover morning dew on my bare feet. Robins sang out a morning newscast. The pine trees leaned in to me with their dark greenness; I felt the spongy carpet of old pines needles with my toes. If I was lucky, no one would find me for awhile.

What next?

I wrote in a bigger notebook with smooth, grown up college-lined pages: “Rena and Roan knew their way up the path. They had been out to the mountain many times. Roan whinnied a little as his mistress settled on his back and then he picked up speed. Behind them, Tupper sat on the porch, worrying his pipe, the smoke disappearing into the cloudy sky. Somewhere out there Link was fixing fence and not thinking about anything else. Rena would change that.”

“Cindy! Time for breakfast and then chores!”

I scratched an old mosquito bite on my leg. Why did they sometimes call me that awful name? It was Cynthia. Names were pretty important. I knew that even at only ten years old and kept my Book of Names handy.

I propped my head on my hands and turned a little so that I could see a bright sliver of Stark’s Nursery through the branches. A dirt road cut through the swath of tiny new trees and bushes. It beckoned me. I could wander through the nursery for hours, thinking of girls who ran with Bengal tigers, or a ship of spies sailing to Shanghai. I acted out many parts in the stories in the nursery, away from prying eyes.

Something fell thorugh the branches, then stopped its descent. I suddenly thought of outlaws and shining knives that were hidden in leather sheaths on belts and shivered. That was not the story I was working on although it often came back to me. I hadn’t found a place for it in my notebook yet. No, it was Rena today. So, why was she going to that mountain? To take something to Link? Yes, a letter from far away, the one he had dreaded and wanted all at once…

The bushes parted and the hidden doorway cracked open.  My sister stuck her head in.

“Mom says come in now. What are you up to?”

“Writing a story.”

“Oh. Well, write later. We have to practice our music lesson and you have to straighten up the living room and then dust and I have my stuff to do. Their bridge party tonight, remember? The Halls and Grays are coming and I forget who else. I’ll be gone by then!”

Gloria squinched her eyes and wrinkled her nose, then stepped back, the bushes closing over her. I could see her shoes, mostly white tennis shoes. I reached down and grabbed a shoelace and as she walked off she tripped, then laughed as she righted herself. I waited for her to charge back into the hideaway; instead, she ran across the back yard. The screen door bounced once, twice, and then was quiet.

I sighed. Streaks of sunlight were sneaking in and warming me up. The pine needles gave off a toasted pine scent that made me drowsy. I closed my eyes and soon was half-dreaming, wandering into a woods somewhere far off, maybe the Black Forest in Germany. Where beautiful dragons lurked who could be friend or enemy in a flash, and powerful men kept watch over all trees and food. Where women and girls often fended for themselves. Only the smartest and fastest survived and when they did, they were made Victorious and Wise Queens of Hyacinth Castle.  The one they had rebuilt after the terrible winter storm…or maybe it was the smaller one they had taken from the weeping dragon…was she still around? Yes, Fraxonia.

A fly buzzed my nose. I shook it off and peered between the branches at the nursery. I thought about walking in the forests up north, near Interlochen Music Camp where we were all headed in a few weeks. That was it: the one real place I often longed to be. Interlochen. Where there was nothing but music and art and dance and plays and writing stories. Starlight on water. Sailboats breezey in the sun. Nothing else mattered there. Just letting wonder happen. Making something small become bigger and better, with work. What stories would come to me there?

The notebooks fell off my lap and I opened my eyes. The Book of Names had opened to the center page. And on it was one word: Charlisa. I whispered her name and picked up my pencil, drew the edge of a lake and placed Charlisa there. She held her hand to her eyes and surveyed the towering trees.

“This time,” Charlisa thought, “this time there will be an end to the dark mystery that imprisons our land and we will all walk free again.”

I sat up and studied the drawing. Not the best but no matter, Charlisa was about to…. what? Make a tree house? Find her friend the messenger? I could hear my mother walking across the yard. I reluctantly closed my notebooks and stuck my pencil behind my ear. Then I went through the hidden doorway and into the other world where my mother had paused at the cherry tree.

“I know, I know,” I said grumpily.

But she smiled the way she did when she was teasing, her grey-blue eyes bright in the spring morning, and asked,  “What did you write about today?”

I put my arm around her waist. “I was naming more characters. But then Rena and Roan came up again–out there on the ranch. But the best thing was Charlisa. The one I couldn’t figure out at all. It turns out she has found her lost country. Now she has to get to work and make things happen.”

“Good, more to come. But right now, food, and then other work,” my mother said and we entered the house where blueberries and french toast waited.

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A postscript: After my mother died in May 2001, I became disheartened when I was  diagnosed with heart disease and was unemployed; I have written of these events in other posts. One night I was watering flowers on the balcony, wondering what to do next– not with my life, exactly, but just how to best live it, especially as I was not sure (and still am not; is anyone?) how long there was left. Sadness seemed to follow me day and night. But that early evening I felt her presence strong and clear as though she stood by me, and she said one thing only: “You must write.”  I suppose she thought I needed a reminder that I have always had to “name the beauties and beasts” and let them speak in Story. So that is what I still try to do, even on those days when all appears to be a shadowy mystery, or when there seems nothing left to say, as it has seemed the past few days. There is always a story waiting to come forward, so I sit down and write once more.

A Valentine to the Arts

I am a dedicated writer, so I appreciate the vast potential of words. They can create irrevocable damage; they can also illuminate mysteries and secrets. They are as apt to build a mighty life as take it down. Well-chosen, measured words are powerful enough to divide or unite nations. They teach us much about the natural and human-made worlds we love so much to inhabit. And words can convey crucial needs and flesh out our dreams.

It has been impossible to imagine a life without the written word since childhood when I was swept up by an early passion for playwriting, then poetry, soon followed by short and longer stories, and finally, as an adult,  novels that wait to one day be shared with many more.  A few things have been published. But the joy of creative journeying has been far greater than words alone might have allowed. 

Before all those words there was, for me, a way of being that was based largely on an absence of language spoken or syllables committed to paper. There was music.  Because my father was a classical musician, conductor and music teacher, our home was filled with music from morning until night. All five children played instruments as early as possible, some before school age. I sang, then played cello and sang, and when I could wrest the baby grand piano away from my siblings and father, I would noodle around on the ivory and ebony keys, making up tunes with a jazzy beat or melancholic drama. I played, studied and when sleeping, dreamed music.  In those otherworldly places within mind and spirit were childish symphonies that grew from happy hours climbing trees and floating upon clear lakes, figure skating against the frosty wind and playing kick the can with friends. I was trailed by music all day long. As I grew up, my cello warmed under my hands and spoke to me in deeper melodies. For a short time, the harp intrigued me and a guitar found its way to me, unleashing songwriting attempts. Singing often felt more natural than speaking. I understood that music was God’s language, and I was a willing believer.

Where there was music, dance surely followed. It didn’t always require the stereo, radio or a sibling’s instrumental accompaniment–just a tune whirling in my mind that set my feet sliding, leaping, spinning. I had discovered the best of both worlds: melody in motion. When multitudinous scarves were added, I was a firebird, a lowly flower seller, a warrior princess, a small, disheveled empress of all. Rhythm and melody moved my body as much as my heart and I felt freed of gravity.

Equally wordless was drawing. I had a small talent, but I did have vision. I drew what I observed but often I let the pencil or pen carry me away, as it seemed to move of its own accord. Houses became a near obsession and I could not have explained why. But they had substantial possibilities with their sun-reflective windows, their elegant porches, the way the chimney gave forth ribbons of smoke, the interiors sketched carefully so that I might wander from room-to-room as eye followed pencil. Add paint and an entire idea turned into a living thing. Later, photography would become a medium I loved. Visual arts were as magic as music and dance.  

I learned I could think of something, then provide it a life of its own, or, rather, simply give rein to imagination and let it express itself. Creating required work, but it most often felt like play. Discipline only increased the pleasure.

I might have felt lonely even within a large extended family of musicians and other creative souls, but there were always summer camps. When I arrived at Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan it was as if I had stepped into the only universe that ever mattered: it was like home except populated by hundreds of youth and adults from all over the world.  Everywhere were people making art: music, theatre, dance, visual and language arts.  It was here that I realized the vast scope of the fine and performing arts. It was here that I learned that while language had its place of pride in my heart, all other arts cast a similarly powerful spell on me. I watched (and later joined) the dancers with awe, their graceful, sweaty bodies illumined by sunshine refracted from the lake beyond. I performed on open-air stages under the pines and was moved by the majesty of Beethoven and the delicacy of Debussy. Art studios drew me with the heady scents of linseed oil, turpentine, clay; there was the flash of a welder at work, the intent gaze of a jeweler as she aligned gems with silver and gold.  Stage plays shaped up with each rehearsal; I left light-hearted and inspired.

And not the least of my experiences occurred in the practice rooms beneath great trees and shimmering sky, when my cello and I became intimate allies in the effort to make good music. And my singing voice? It got to ride with the wind, carried high on the wings of birds.

I fell wildly, mysteriously in love with the arts from a young age, with the act of simple or complex creation.  Language has given voice to what matters most to me  and storytelling never fails to surprise, challenge and keep me company. But all the arts have saved me more than once and made beautiful this world in which we each struggle, strive and hope. Like wise spiritual teachers, they have mentored me every step of the way as they do countless others.

One should be so fortunate to experience a lifelong love such as this.