Please, Give Me A Word

After my many weeks where words stayed just out of my sight and hearing, I was inspired by the Abby of the Arts to seek and ponder a word for the year ahead. Christine Valters Paintner, the online Abbess of the Abby, wrote:

In ancient times, wise men and women fled out into the desert to find a place where they could be fully present to God and to their own inner struggles at work within them. The desert became a place to enter into the refiner’s fire and be stripped down to one’s holy essence. The desert was a threshold place where you emerged different than when you entered.

Many people followed these ammas and abbas, seeking their wisdom and guidance for a meaningful life. One tradition was to ask for a word –  this word or phrase would be something on which to ponder for many days, weeks, months, sometimes a whole lifetime. This practice is connected to lectio divina, where we approach the sacred texts with the same request – “give me a word” we ask – something to nourish me, challenge me, a word I can wrestle with and grow into.

She then asked her readers:

What is your word for the year ahead? A word which contains within it a seed of invitation to cross a new threshold?

What word, phrase, or image is shimmering before you right now inviting you to dwell with it until it ripens fully inside of you?

I pondered and tried on words for many days, without finding one that “shimmered.” Words that I typically would find inspirational, words like “joy,” “adventure,” “truth,” “kindness'” fell like duds, without even the tiniest spark of life.

It was on my morning walk the day after my Alexander Technique lesson that the first gleam of a word appeared.

In my AT lesson, my teacher encouraged me to “use my eyes” to take in the space around me, and to see all the space above me that is mine to inhabit. She asked me to let my eyes sweep across the floor and up the wall in front of me to lead me in standing up from sitting on a chair.

I remembered how my harp teacher encourages me when I am trying to read music to allow my eyes to have a “wider aperture,” so that I will see more than one measure of music at a time. I continue to work on moving my eyes forward in the music so that I will see where I am going, instead of staying focused on where I’ve been.

Then I noticed how I was walking: head down, staring at the pavement, instead of seeing the bare trees etching their shapes against the remarkably blue sky above me. I lifted my head and saw two bluebirds, a male and a female, flitting from tree to tree. I wondered if my word for the year would be “Vision.”

The next morning, again while on my walk, the acrostic that came to me sealed the deal:

Vision requires

Inner and outer

Sight.

Images await your discovery.

Open your eyes and your heart, so that they may

Nurture you.

My word for the year is “Vision.” Now I begin the discovery of all the treasure that this word holds for me.

 

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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.

The Space Around Me

I started Alexander Technique lessons three months ago. A couple of nasty car wrecks left me with a long-term neck and back discomfort that now bothers me more and more when I am practicing. I’m hoping to become more aware of how I create tension when I am at the harp, and to learn how to not do that.

My second Alexander lesson ended with my teacher working with me at the harp. With my neck, shoulders and ribcage loose and expanded, my arms felt like they were floating, my fingers were strong and free, and the sound that burst forth when I plucked the strings was full, rich and glorious – and different from anything I’d heard come from my harp. That was all the convincing I needed that I was on the right track.

Tonight’s lesson was different. No harp, just gentle upward strokes on my neck and head, then me walking back and forth across the length of the room. As I walked, my teacher asked me to be aware of the empty space above my head. “Now feel the space in front of you and behind you as you walk, feel it move across the room with you,” she said. “All this space is here for you. Being aware of it gives you room in which to move, and gives you freedom to relax, to open, to expand.”

What a concept! Despite what I am sure adds up to be hundreds of thousands of dollars of therapy, the idea that there is all this space around me, and that it is mine to move my body in, mine to use, mine to be in, still feels new, and breath-taking. Bourbon took up all the space in my childhood house. I grew up knowing there was no room for me, knowing that I needed to stay safely hidden away, taking up as little space as possible, hoping I would not be seen or heard when the nightly chaos began. I longed to be invisible. Staying silent, small, and unnoticed was as close to invisible as I could get. Much of my work with performance anxiety is about peeling away these layers of fear and substitute invisibility, and finding that I can be safe when I am seen and heard.

Tonight, walking across the room feeling the two feet of space above my head, I feel my neck and spine lengthen and relax. There’s no need to hold myself in. My shoulder blades slide down my back and my arms swing freely – there’s plenty of room around me. As each foot touches the floor it rolls easily from heel to toes. I feel as though I am gliding on smoothly oiled joints, instead of plodding across the room on my creaky oft-broken ankles and my cranky knees. My legs and hips are happy to hold me up and ask no help from my neck, which now only has to balance my head on its topmost vertebrae. Moving feels light, and spacious, and good.

Doing table work, my teacher gently reminds my hands of all the space that exists between the tendons and bones, and of all the movement that my fingers are capable of. After my lesson, again at my harp, my hands find the C-major chord and roll it perfectly without help from finger and thumb splints. My ring fingers stay rounded, instead of collapsing. How or why I don’t know, or don’t yet have words for. Perhaps fingers, too, find support and ease being enfolded in this new, expanded space around me? Each lesson leaves me “curiouser and curiouser.”

Tomorrow I shift to an entirely different space: the annual Southeastern Harp Weekend in Asheville, NC. The space around me will be filled with all things harp, and with people as silly-ga-ga about harps as I am, but will be quite deficient with wi-fi access. I’ll be back in Blogland with harp weekend stories next week.