Cold War Musings

20130123-130000.jpg I’ve been fighting a nasty cold since Saturday. It’s the kind of cold that little kids get, wet and croupy, the kind of cold that inspires parents to break out the vaporizer and the mentholated chest rub. In this adult version, the weapons on my side include several boxes of extra soft tissues, Mucinex, the Chinese herb Yin Chiao, homeopathic ColdCalm, and a witches brew of ginger, chamomile and echinacea tea. On the cold’s side are tens of thousands of years of co-evolution with homo sapiens that maximizes the rhinovirus’ capacity to use my lungs and sinuses to reproduce. Guess who is coming out ahead.

Unlike the virus donor who left this particular gift on some surface for me to find, I stayed home this week. I reneged on attending my harp lesson, my yoga class, playing at Hospice and both ensemble classes. Canceling so many activities brought me face-to-face with my overdeveloped sense of responsibility to show up when and where I said I would. In this over-responsible world view, I am letting people down if I don’t show up. I am disrupting my harp teacher’s schedule, disrespecting my yoga teacher, not fulfilling my commitment as a Hospice volunteer, and not pulling my weight with the ensembles. In this world view, it is likely that the earth’s rotation will grind to a halt if I stay home.

I retired over two years ago. I know that in my current life, there are no real, tangible consequences for not showing up. There’s no meetings with disgruntled bosses or bad performance reviews because I am absent. My time is mine to claim, mine to use.

This week, as I made calls and sent e-mails telling people I was sick and staying home, I felt that sense of freedom for the first time. I don’t HAVE to do any of the things that fill my week. I do them because I want to. All of my activities are choices, all are things I do because I enjoy them, because they make my life rich and full. My harp lesson, my yoga class, all my activities are important to me, but not as important as ridding myself of this viral invasion. And I know that the most significant thing I can do to get well is to rest, is to reduce the drain on my energy reserves as much as possible so that my body can vanquish the virus. So home is the place to be, and the place to stay.

On a completely different note, sometime during the past week, one more reader signed up to receive e-mails when I publish a blog post. I passed a milestone I never anticipated – there are now 100 subscribers to Heart To Harp. I still remember telling my harp teacher that no one would be interested in anything I wrote about learning to play the harp. She said I was wrong, and you proved her right. Thank you! Thanks for reading, thanks for commenting, thanks for subscribing, and thanks for being part of the journey.


Starting Another Trip ‘Round The Sun

Yesterday was my 59th birthday – today I’m embarking on my 60th trip around the sun. (Thanks for fixing my counting, Nanci!) I thought entering the last year of my 50’s would feel a bit more monumental, but so far it doesn’t seem to be one of those high-profile birthdays, not like I anticipate changing decades again will be.

At last year’s birthday, I was anticipating knee surgery and retirement. Beyond that I had no idea what might happen in my new life. My journal entry on August 5th, one a year ago, reads:

“Who knows what another year will bring. In my working world, I could predict a constancy of scenery and activity, with one year likely being similar to another. This coming year, all the scripts are new, and I don’t know what story is being written. There’s room for the new and unimagined, for so many new adventures.”

When I think back to my last birthday and the year that’s rolled out since then, I realize that I’ve done so many things that I never could have imagined doing last August 4th. Doing watercolor journaling – not the slightest blip on the radar. Playing my harp for the retirement home Christmas party – completely unthought of. Taking voice lessons, enrolling in the chorus class at the community college, and then singing the Verdi Requiem – all a total surprise. Writing this blog – just a wee kernel of an idea suggested by my harp teacher, that I was still trying to ignore.

This past year reminds me that it’s impossible to anticipate all the adventures, wonders and possibilities that await me. I can hardly wait to see what this next trip around the sun has in store.

My New Blog: Stories That Might Be True

I started my blog, Heart To Harp, almost a year ago. It’s ended up being about my real-life adventures with harp, music, gardening, retirement, and whatever else I’m thinking about day-to-day, as well as where I’ve posted photos for the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge. But now more writing is demanding to enter my life, so I’ve started an additional blog, called Stories That Might Be True. This one is for the stories that keep tugging at my elbow, demanding existence and wanting to be told. Some of them may have happened in that time and space we all share. Others may be denizens of lands created by dreams and breathing. But all might be true. I hope you’ll drop by and visit.

Being Useful and Singing the Verdi Requiem

There’s been something ragged lurking at the edge of my contentment, poking me occasionally with a sharp feeling of emptiness. I’ve been asking whatever it is to come in for tea and tell me about itself, but it refused to show its face until a couple of evenings ago, as I was backing out of my driveway, of all times and places.

I suddenly remembered an oft-repeated command, a theme, really, of my growing up: “Don’t just stand there – make yourself useful.”  Feeling “useful” seems to be the name of that discontent that has been hanging about just outside my awareness.

I was brought up to be useful, to look around at what was needing to be done, or helped, or fixed, or attended to, and then to do that, without waiting for someone else to point it out and then tell me what to do. The washer is finished, so hang out the clothes. The floor is dirty, so sweep it. The lightbulb is burnt out, so change it.

It wasn’t entirely a bad way to be brought up; I became independent, developed skills in figuring out problems and how to fix them, and found myself welcomed by my friends’ parents in their homes, and later by groups because I, well, made myself useful.

Then I had a whole career that revolved around making myself useful. For 30+ years I was counseling, problem solving, advising, nurturing, mentoring, and otherwise helping people. Trying to make things better for people was how I made myself useful, and it all became a surprisingly big part of who I am. Now that I’m retired, there seems to be an empty spot that used to be filled up with feeling “useful.”

There are lessons to be learned here. The most obvious one:  Just being is enough. Just being is all that’s required. I don’t have to earn a place on this earth. I don’t have to earn connections with others by being useful. The people I love, the people who love me don’t expect me to make myself useful as a condition of friendship and connection. I have a place with them that is freely given, just because.

I was backing out of the driveway to go to the first rehearsal of the Verdi Requiem. It was the first time the three separate choruses were combined, as well as the first time we worked with our conductor. The rehearsal was immensely challenging. It was the first time I had to find my alto line against the never-before-heard second chorus. Our class spent the semester just trying to learn correct pitches and to pronounce the Latin words without southern drawls; now the conductor wanted nuance and shading from our voices. The lid of the grand piano opened to face the front of the stage, so the pitches sounded by the pianist never made it to my spot at the top corner of the risers, as far away from the piano as it was possible to be.

Still, we made music. We made the Requiem come to life there in that empty theater. Our voices swelled in response to the conductor’s gestures, then dropped, when asked, to tender whispers. The beauty and majesty that Verdi created came forth, whether because of us or in spite of us, I don’t know. But needing to feel useful was forgotten and irrelevant.

What I remembered in its place is that making music is all about being – it’s not about earning a place, it’s not about being useful. Making music is about being completely and fully alive, and experiencing each moment that the music contains. In all those moments of the Verdi, there was no emptiness, no doubt, no discontent, no sadness for anything left behind, no longing for anything yet to come. There was just my heart, my whole being, filled with joy.

Retirement Un-Planning

It’s four months to the day of my leaving my office for the last time, four months into this retirement adventure. Four months of contemplating what life would be birthed out of the unknown, of wondering what new scene would emerge from what felt like the swirling snow in a snow globe.

Four months later, the snow is still swirling. Perhaps it always will be. Perhaps the era of predictability, of knowing in advance the landscape where I will walk for the next weeks and months and years, is over.

Instead of having one distinct picture of what my life will be, it seems instead to be a braid of many colors and textures, with new threads being woven in all the time, as old ones come to their right endings; always changing, not planned or predictable, but always vibrant, always beautiful, alive with color, texture, energy and surprise. This is a good image, a strong image, one I want to hold on to, this picture of weaving my ribbon of life out of the gifts and choices and people and chance surprises that come my way.

Joining a Chorus, and the Utter Joy of Singing

I grew up singing. My small school could not afford instruments or instrumental teachers, so school music was singing. We sang in our classrooms every day, and in a group music class with a piano accompanist once a week. My first written music was Gregorian chant, sung by us second graders when at least half of us were still struggling with “See Spot run,” let alone Latin. We sang the mass at least once per week. We had Christmas and Easter music programs every year, and multi-school choral contests each spring.

I was duly taught the “nouns and verbs” of musical language: the names of the lines and spaces of the treble clef, the different kinds of notes and rests and their relationships, the meaning of time signatures, how to count rhythms, how to follow music on the page through repeat signs, etc. All of which meant that I did not totally flounder when I began harp lessons, and that, at last, I had a reason to be thankful for my childhood nemeses, the nuns.

But no one ever taught us how to sing, or how to use our voices. Singing was something you just knew how to do, or else you learned to mouth words silently so Sister’s pointer would not crack the back of your head when you were sharp or flat. I had a good ear and picked up tunes easily, so I was one of the kids who really sang.

I sang in Girl Scouts, at troop meetings and at every meal and every evening campfire at summer camp. I sang with friends as we played guitars and ukeleles during the ’60’s folk revival. I sang in the church choir and in the high school chorus. Singing was where I found community, belonging, and joy.

When I went to college it all stopped. Too intimidated by what I perceived as a lack of “real” musical training, I steered clear of the music department and whatever singing opportunities might be there. Classes and working multiple jobs left no time to sing for fun, anyway. After graduation I didn’t look for places to sing – by then I was totally out of practice. And my voice, unused and ignored, left me. I knew nothing about how to get it back. Just singing “Happy Birthday” could be embarrassing. There was no longer any predicting what sound would emerge from what had been a decent-enough alto voice, or whether it would be in tune. The back of my head would have been blackened and bruised, if the nuns were still near enough to hear me.

But for many years I had harbored a secret desire to take voice lessons, so that I could sing again. Time, circumstances, and fear kept me from pursuing either. I’d not even added voice lessons to my “what I’ll do when I retire” list. Then last October my harp teacher introduced me to a voice teacher who welcomes to her studio people like me, people who would like to sing and would like to get better at it. I scheduled an initial lesson /assessment, and had so much fun, I’m doing monthly lessons.

My teacher only had two requirements: one, that I practice, and two, that I find somewhere to sing. Practicing, I could handle, but finding a group to sing with was a challenge. I won’t join a church just to sing in a choir. My favorite community singing group meets the same night as my recorder class. My solution was to register for the chorus class at the community college.

Today was the second day of class. There’s about 60 traditional college-age students, one man who looks to be my age (i.e. grown) and me. Who has not sight-sung an alto part in 42 years. But at least half the class claims that they don’t read music AT ALL, so I’m hoping that the accompanist will play enough repetitions of the alto lines for me to resurrect being able to connect the note I see to the pitch I sing.

And today, with only one rudimentary run-through of a piece, our 60 or so voices joined in song, and I was transported.  To be surrounded by the music of so many voices, to be one of those voices creating that music, to feel my own voice resonant and strong, to ride the waves of sound and the emotions of the lyrics – it was pure, all-encompassing, total joy, created both from our singing today, and from memories of singing with all those other voices, so many years ago.


Snow (again!)

After the last several years where winter made light of its role in the December – March calendar, we have our second major snowfall in two weeks. The last four days of meteorological broadcast hysteria was apparently warranted. The snow started about 4 am, there were 2 inches on the ground by 6, and as the song says, “. . . it doesn’t show signs of stoppin’ .”

We are promised ice and freezing rain later, and I don’t doubt this prediction. My friend in Birmingham (Alabama) says they are coated with a 1/4 inch of ice. The city is under attack from falling trees and tree limbs, and is coping with resulting power outages. The ice part of this storm is set to barrel up I-85 to North Carolina and arrive by this evening. After our last ice storm we had no electricity for a week. So I have a fire laid in the fireplace, wood stacked on the front porch, candles and flashlights at hand, matches ready to light the stove burners when the electric ignition fails. All I have to do now is enjoy the sight of the comparatively benign snowflakes, which are falling so densely that I cannot see my back fence in the back yard.

Birds are taking cover in the azalea by the patio, waiting their turn at the feeders like planes lined up for take-off on the tarmac, which is the only place planes would be today had not all flights in and out of the airport been cancelled. There are robins, cardinals, juncos, black-capped chickadees, rufous-sided towhees, goldfinch in their winter plumage, titmice, purple and non-purple finches, some wee wrens, and for the first time at my feeders, bluebirds. My yard is home to several bluebirds, but I typically see them catching their preferred insects on the wing, or plucking blue-black berries from the cedar tree. In this snow, they wait their turn at the feeder, then fly in and delicately grasp a single black-oil sunflower seed in their beaks, fly to the evergreen hedge, and crack it open and eat it.

It’s strange to feel like the this storm has given me a day off. I’m retired. I no longer have to call the employee weather line like my working friends, who at 6 this morning were on their phones, hoping to hear that county offices were closed due to inclement weather. And I no longer have to struggle to make it to work when against all common sense and good judgement (for a city that does not plow neighborhood streets,) county offices remained open. Trekking to the end of the driveway to fetch the morning paper is the extent of my mobile adventures today.

But the snow creates a completely unscheduled day and evening, which is still a lovely gift. The community college is closed, so I won’t be starting the new chorus class today. The Monday evening yoga class is cancelled, and my teacher delayed the start of spring semester harp lessons until next week. So there is this luscious, unfilled time stretching before me, an unplanned holiday.

I have bread rising in the oven, a domestic pleasure I don’t enjoy often enough. I’ve read my friend Catherine’s entire blog, Listening for the Whisperings, which transports me to a world where the workings of soul and light are treasured and entwined. I have new music on the music stand and time to slowly work my way through it, phrase by phrase. My cat is on my lap, purring her approval of my writing as I type. This day could not be more perfect, or contain more joy.

Harp Lessons from an Oak Leaf

Since retiring, I’ve been doing watercolor sketches in one of my journals. I don’t know where this is coming from…I’ve not painted before. But none-the-less, I’m enjoying being totally engrossed in reproducing some little icon of my day via ink and watercolor.

This autumn, I am also fascinated with all the shapes and colors of the falling leaves. So much brilliance, so many gifts lying at my feet.

Last week I pencil sketched an oak leaf, then outlined it in with my pen. My sketch ended up looking so flat and lifeless, so cartoon-ish, I’d given up hope of making anything of it. My sketch has languished alone and ignored in my open journal for the past week. I’d look at it as I walked by my work table, sigh, and walk on.

Yesterday afternoon I decided that I would finally face it, and add watercolor. I could not just leave it in my journal, a naked testament to my problems with truly seeing this leaf. And now, with watercolor, it has come alive on the page. So many shades of brown, so many tiny traceries of veins, each one connected to all others across the entire surface of the leaf. A whole network of connections, a miracle replicated how many millions of times on this one oak tree. And replicated how many hundreds of millions of times in all the leaves now falling through this achingly blue November sky like a blizzard of multi-colored snow flakes.

I am happy that I did not let my embarrassment about this drawing keep me from returning to it and welcoming it into my journal and my heart, where I could give it color and a chance to come alive. Perhaps if I can give up embarrassment about my harp playing, I can also let the music I am trying to play enter my heart, be bathed in brilliant color and come alive.

Doing What I CAN Today

My BFF, Beth, asked me today when I was going to post another blog entry, and I realized that I’ve not written anything since walking out the door of my office building for the last time.  Time, in retirement-world, seems to take on whole new dimensions that are kept secret from the working people.  I am a third of the way through October, and it seems like I was bringing in the last office box from my car just a couple of days ago.

There’s a lot I could write about:

  • There’s all the strange activities that happen in the neighborhood between the hours of 8 and 5 – dogs I’ve never seen being walked, roofers and landscapers cruising the streets, a whole different population up and about.
  • There’s the fall edition of the Sight-Reading Saga – not pretty, that one, I’ll leave it for another time.
  • There’s the strange and odd things I find myself doing now that I’m not at work, like changing clothes 5 times a day, as the outside temperature and my activities change.
  • There’s the ongoing tales of physical therapy and the therapist who thinks that I should learn to squat at the age of 58. (Hah!)
  • There’s the latest challenges from harp lessons and recorder class, which could easily take all night to relate.

But what’s drawing me to write tonight, is this:

Yesterday I went to a music workshop put on by Hospice & Palliative Care of Cabarrus County, titled A Meditative Journey through Voice and Instruments. Hospice offers a therapeutic music program for their patients and families, as well as workshops about playing music at patients’ bedsides. Our workshop closed by playing for the residents at the Tucker Hospice House. Our instructor encouraged us to get over ourselves re: pre-performance jitters, saying that we have too much to do before a performance to have time for that. And then she added:

“As musicians, we are always working to improve our skills. And there are things that you cannot do today. It is what it is. But don’t let what you can’t yet do, keep you from sharing and giving to others what you can do.”

And once again I realized that my frustration, disappointment, and embarrassment about what I cannot yet do on the harp, and my judgements about what I think I should be able to do by now after taking harp lessons this long, keep me from sharing and giving what I can do with ease, confidence and an open heart.  I’m left playing with fear instead of with joy, or with love for the harp and the music, or with gratitude for having the harp in my life. My embarrassment, fear, and judgement keep me out of that place where I accept what I can do now, and then strive to do it as beautifully and as heart-felt as possible.

For a performance last fall, I was able to approach it as offering others a gift of music I love, on an instrument I love, however simply I was able to play it. I don’t know what the magic was, that the judging voice in my head that preaches “You should be able to do more, you should  be farther along than this, you should be able to play better,” was silenced. And the performance went well. I played with confidence and ease, even with a critically needed F-lever on my harp splitting in half just hours before I played.

Next Saturday I’m playing for an hour at a book sale to benefit our public library. It’s an audio wallpaper gig, where everyone is engaged in doing something else and I’m hanging out with my harp, creating ambiance. It’s the kind of public playing I can do, and according to more than one harp teacher who’s seen my hands shake as I play for others, the perfect prescription for overcoming performance anxiety and nerves.

And so, I’m reminding myself that I know simple arrangements of beautiful tunes that I love to play, and I want to play them for others. On Saturday, I promise myself, and whoever reads this post, that I will think only about what I can do, and share the music that I can play, with joy, and love, and gratitude.