Turning Towards Light

Ruth Ann died five months ago. Meanwhile, the earth completed another quarter of its journey around the sun. Spring’s pastels of iris and dogwood are replaced by bold watermelon pink and purple crape myrtles, scarlet gladiolas, and orange day lilies that defy soaring heat and lack of rain. The last of the magnolia blossoms still perfume heavy summer air. The hours of light grow imperceptibly shorter each day, while the hours of night lengthen towards the darkness of winter.

I live in a precarious balance between light and darkness. Daylight hours of walking, music, knitting, and being encircled in the kindness of friends brings laughter, peace, and grounding among the living. Quiet nights bring reflection and sadness. In daylight, when I remember to breathe slowly and appreciate the fragility of all that I love, grace and gratitude can guide my way. Darker nights assail me with futility, with knowing all will be lost in the end, and leave me relieved to see the sunrise.

Someone had just passed away when I arrived at the Hospice unit last Tuesday. Family had not made it to the bedside before the patient’s final breath. I had unpacked my harp and was playing in the hallway outside this hospital room when the family arrived in a rush of heartbreak and weeping.  Once inside the room a young girl began keening,”No, no, no….I don’t want her to be dead.”

I kept playing. I kept fingers moving on the harp strings while her sobs crescendoed into wailing that echoed down the hallways with desperate cries of “No, no, no….come back, come back.” I hoped that Music could in some way comfort her fear and ease her pain, could in some way say to this family, “The world has felt this grief, and created these tunes to stand beside you on this hard journey.”

I’ve thought about this young girl all week. Thought about how she was able to scream her pain and give voice to the same words I mouthed so quietly to myself when I found out Ruth Ann was dead: No, no, no. . . . Come back, come back. . . . I don’t want you to be dead. And I see how these are everybody’s words, everybody’s desperate desire. The price of love is that we will tumble down in seemingly endless eddies of grief and fear when the ones we love leave us behind on this suddenly empty and lonely earth.

When I was twenty-something, I thought the Buddhist concept of non-attachment meant that we were not supposed to love, not supposed to care. That we were supposed to walk blasély through the world, indifferent to who and what it offered to us. Life and love and loss teach a different translation: that we must care about, and love, all that the world offers with all our heart, but with open hands. Open hands that do not clutch and grab at what is passing from them. Open hands that allow the heartbreak of endings. And open hands that once empty, are willing receptacles for approaching, as-yet-unknown joys.

In the heat and glare of a July day, darkness grows, and winter approaches. But today I remember that it is in the darkness of December, and the cold depths of winter, that the earth again turns towards light.

 

To Everything There Is A Season

The season of tulips is over:

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The season of irises begins:

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March’s wood hyacinths are fading away:

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While the Dianthus burst forth into the heat of May:

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The airy clouds of dogwood blossoms brown and fade:

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Becoming litter on the ground:

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While maple leaves unfurl into summer, creating welcome shade:

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The gifts of each season pass, but are unerringly replaced by the gifts of the next season. Every morning walk tells me this is so. Every morning walk should assure me that the passing of the season of Ruth Ann in my life will be followed by gifts of the next season, gifts as yet unimagined and unknown.

But the shape and weight of the emptiness left by her death continue to confound me. My meager tendrils of faith in the turning world struggle to take root and grow. Trusting that a new season will quietly tiptoe into my life and astound me with its beauty requires moment-by-moment suspension of disbelief.

My favorite television show is Call the Midwife. Last Sunday’s episode closed with these words:

Invisible wounds are the hardest to heal, for their closure depends upon the love of others, and patience, understanding and the tender gift of time.

I am blessed with the love of others. My own patience and understanding for my hurting heart are in short supply. But the tender gift of time arrives of its own accord, without requirements of belief, faith or consent.  And so, I act “as if” the passing of grief and the return of joy are inevitable, even while faith and trust remain out of reach. And every morning I step out the door, and keep walking.

By Way of Sorrow

I’ve avoided writing this post since four days into my trip to London, and for the last two months. I landed in London on Tuesday, February 18th. On Friday, just after visiting Hampton Court Palace, I read the e-mail my friend Jeanette said was the hardest she ever had to write, the one telling me that our friend and my soul-sister Ruth Ann died early Thursday morning.

Ruth Ann had lung surgery two weeks earlier. She told me not to come see her in the hospital – she didn’t want me picking up some nasty illness before my trip. She came through surgery like a champ, and was home recuperating and doing well. I thought the time for any potential problems was over, and that her only challenge was to slowly and steadily regain her strength and stamina. I thought that I would see her and tell her all about my trip once I was home. Some unseen, unknown, undiagnosed complication caused her to hemorrhage, and changed everything.

It was easy to do blog posts while I was in London. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I made myself leave the house every day and go see at least one of the sites on my London list. Getting to and spending time in interesting places was a much-needed distraction. Picking out which photos to post and writing some breezy description of where I’d been that day helped fill up what had become long, grief-filled evenings and sleepless nights.

But once home, there was only one thing that I could possibly write about. And to write about Ruth Ann’s death would make it far too real, and more than I could bear. This grief has been so physical, so heavy to carry. Breathing takes such an expenditure of energy, energy that seems lost and gone forever, just like Ruth Ann. It’s taken every bit of this time to believe and accept that my soul-sister no longer lives on this Earth and that I will never again gaze into her eyes and heart. It’s taken every bit of this time to wrap my heart around this emptiness.

Since coming home I’ve tried to keep showing up for all the things that fill my life, if only because I know that Ruth Ann would not want me to lose one moment of life or connection or music in my grieving for her. And so, I walk. I knit. I practice. I show up for yoga class and the Hospice unit and harp lessons and ensemble rehearsals. I spend time with still-living friends who love me and care for my aching heart. But I’ve not written a word, in either my private journal or my blog.

In the two months since Ruth Ann died, the Earth turned towards the Sun. The hours of darkness shrink, and light beckons. The oaks and maples unfurl new green leaves against a china-blue sky. Shade returns to the world. White and pink clouds of dogwood blossoms arch over the neighborhood streets. The scent of confederate jasmine hangs in the air. White azalea blossoms mound like snowdrifts, and offer backdrop for the crimson, lavender and pink azaleas that compete for attention. A sudden burst of red on green bursts into song as the cardinal perches in the cedar tree beside my driveway.

It’s Easter Sunday, the day to celebrate resurrection and redemption. Easter does not erase the pain of Ruth Ann’s passing, but it reminds me that life emerges from darkness, and that we are all offered resurrection. I breathe out gratitude for beauty that still fills this world, and for the hope that is promised this day. And that’s a start.

Charmed by Little Venice

My last day in London I found Little Venice, a hidden paradise on the Regents Canal in Maida Vale.

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The canal is lined with narrowboats repurposed from their original task of transporting goods through London, to become off-beat homes on the water.

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On Sunday afternoon you can take the Waterbus to Camden Lock, and float through a hidden, wild London.

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Away from the noise of traffic, floating through tunnels of trees, it’s easy to forget the city that surrounds these hidden waterways.

A Day At The Tower

Today dawned another unexpected “bright” morning, so I hightailed it to the tube’s Jubilee and District lines to get to the Tower of London before every other London tourist got the same idea. There wasn’t even a line to see the Crown Jewels. Here’s a few shots from my day at the tower. . .

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The White Tower

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Can you find the harp?

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The ravens remain. The kingdom is safe.

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Henry VIII’s Armor

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Astrological chart graffiti carved by a prisoner accused of sorcery.

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Old and New

Weekly Photo Challenge: Threes

I spent this rare English sunny day at Hampton Court Palace, walking the brick-worked passages and courtyards that felt the footsteps of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn.

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The Voice Of St. Paul’s

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On the first day of my London adventure, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon the choral evensong service at St. Paul’s. Oh, my! The music was presented by the organ and men’s choir along with one angelic soprano who floated her voice above the richness of the male voices.

Musicians speak about playing in a “live” space, one with lots of resonance, where sound carries. I’ve never heard anyone speak of playing in “an alive” space. But St. Paul’s is truly alive. The stones sing. The resonance of the dome creates another voice that sings in harmony with the choir.

The choir sang a piece by William Byrd from the 1600’s that soared to the heavens. After the choir processed out of the nave, the organist played Bach. I listened in wonder, for the stones of the cathedral sing with the organ, too.

Winter Knitting

Here are photos of what’s come off my knitting needles since finishing the Christmas knitting projects.

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Faux möbius cowl knit with Misti alpaca chunky handpaint.

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Churchmouse cashmere beret pattern knit with Louisa Harding silk and wool “Grace.”

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“Simple Summer Tweed” sweater by Heidi Kirrmeier knit in Cestari Heather Collection cotton and wool blend.

That leaves me with only a scarf, a shawlette, and the endless lace project still in progress. Not to worry – I have my next sweater, a pair of socks, and another shawl already picked out and ready to start.

Hunkering Down With The Woodpile And The Harp Bench

20140212-124153.jpgWe’re in day two of a three-day winter storm that’s blowing through the southeastern U.S.  Yesterday’s two inches of snow took most of our local weather forecasters by surprise. They told us to expect an early morning “dusting.” Instead, snow fell all day, and cooled off sidewalks and roads so that today’s snow won’t melt, and travel on unplowed neighborhood streets will become impossible.

Local and national forecasters got closer to reality today. Snow began falling early this morning, and is expected to accumulate at the rate of one inch per hour during the afternoon. They warn that our 4-to-8 inches of snow will be followed by a coating of ice, courtesy of sleet and freezing rain this evening. Our last big ice storm hit ten years ago this month, and left my neighborhood without electricity for two weeks. So I’m back to the basics of preparing for the worst.

There’s a waist-high stack of dry wood on the front porch, tucked under a blue tarp to keep it dry in the blowing snow. The candles are in their holders, the emergency oil lamp is filled and the wick trimmed, the wooden matches to light the gas burners when the electric ignition fails are on the counter by the stove. The flashlights are filled with fresh batteries, the electronic devices are charged. I might be a city girl now, but my years of living in the country taught me the value of self-sufficiency and not depending on the power grid during bad weather.

I’m back to the basics with my harp lessons as well. Last fall I read this quote from Deborah Henson-Conant’s blog entry, The Mystery Of Mastery, on HipHarp.com.

“I’m not dissing mastery. I’m just saying that – especially for adult learners – is it really about mastery? Or is it about having simple structures that help us express the richness of the lives we’ve created, and to share that richness with others?

When we, as adults, learn something new, what we want is fluency.

There seems to be an idea that ‘mastery’ means adding complexity – but fluency can be about getting more and more comfortable and creative with simplicity – so that we can express OURSELVES through it. 

And expressing ourselves through it is what’s important.

Last year my focus was on performance: playing at Hospice, learning repertoire to play in two harp chapter concerts, and the ongoing jousting with fear and performance anxiety. This year I am still playing at Hospice, but not signing up for other performance opportunities. This year my focus is on fluency and musicality. This year I am investigating what keeps me from expressing myself musically on the harp, what keeps me from playing a tune as beautifully as I can hear it in my head and as fluidly as I can imagine my fingers moving.

My “simple structures” are scales and arpeggios, and my primary tool for investigation is the video camera in my iPad, which when placed on a spare music stand beside my harp, captures everything my hands are doing. Since video-taping my practice sessions, I’ve discovered major inefficiencies in my harp technique that interfere with me playing fluidly and expressively.

I’m back to the very first steps of playing the harp: closing my fingers into the palm when I pluck, and replacing my fingers on the harp strings without buzzes. The videos showed that I have a lot of unnecessary hand motion when I close and replace. These hand motions take more time, which creates hiccups in the fluidity of the music and which traps me into playing slowly.

I am practicing scales with the mental images of “quiet hands,” and fingers that effortlessly fold shut, and then unfold and return to the strings without waving up and landing from above. After lots of very slow practice, I’m able to play ascending and descending scales a good 20 beats per minute faster than before. And my scales sound really good! Not allowing wiggling hands to siphon off energy that should go towards fingers pressing and releasing the strings creates a richer, fuller sound.

With the Alexander Technique lessons, I am developing both the core support that allows my arms, hands and fingers to move freely, and greater awareness of how I am moving and using my body. I can connect suddenly clumsy fingers to subtle shifts in my posture that causes my neck and spine to collapse forward, which then keeps me from supporting my arms and centering my hands on the strings, which prevents my fingers from moving freely.

When my hands are supported and balanced on the strings, my fingers naturally snap closed into my palms without forcing them to move after I pluck a string. That’s what they want to do. With tension released by closing, my fingers unfold, again without “making” them move. This effortless movement feels delicious! For the first time, I’m consciously aware that good technique really does feel good.

But my most significant shift is being able to watch the videos and view my harp technique issues as inefficiencies that stymie fluency and expression, instead of as failures that I should have corrected given the number of years I’ve had harp lessons. The Inner Critic no longer has a seat in my practice room. I know that for all the harp years, I’ve worked hard and practiced conscientiously so that I could play the very best I could.  And I know that I’ll keep doing that for all the harp years to come.