Music In The Mountains

This week I’m in the far western mountains of North Carolina, on the campus of Western Carolina University, attending the Mountain Collegium Early Music and Folk Music Workshop. I have intensive classes in recorder technique, ornamenting Renaissance music, and Renaissance dance. At the end of the afternoon, my harp and I go to a folk ensemble where I am learning new tunes by ear and there are no more pesky notes to interpret.

There’s not much time between classes to get myself and my assorted instruments from one classroom to another. By the end of the day, this is what my bed looks like. (The arnica is for my ankles after the dance class.)


I’m getting to play lots of 15th and 16th century music, learning how to play and dance Bransles, Galliards, Canaries, and Pavanes, trying my hands (and lungs) on even more obscure instruments like krumhorns and cornamuses, and spending time with folks from across the country who are even more ga-ga over Medieval and Renaissance music than I am.

I am grateful to again be at this gathering of the tribe of early musicians, grateful to again see people who are becoming old friends. And I am grateful to have another place in this world where I know I truly belong.


Knitting Sanctuary

Handcrafts belong to an earlier world, the slower pace of preindustrial life where one had the leisure to sink deeply and profoundly into the rhythms of nature within and without and to feel a connection with the earth as a living spiritual entity. We make things by hand to express who we are, our identity as individuals as well as our affiliation to our tribe or our clan. Handcrafts throughout history have often been fashioned with the aid of prayer, one prayer for each bead or each stitch, while keeping good thoughts to enhance the spiritual purpose of the object. . . . The motions of needlework are singularly well suited to the practice of contemplation.

-Susan Gordon Lydon –The Knitting Sūtra: Craft as a Spiritual Practice

I’m back from a knitting retreat with my Wednesday night knitting group. I spent the weekend ensconced on a screened porch under sheltering trees, overlooking a lake, knitting and talking and living outside of normal time.

A weekend with no schedule, no agenda, no list of things to get done, allowed me to hear the approaching whir of tiny wings, allowed me to watch the hummingbirds defend their claims to red plastic flowers as they darted between the feeders. A bald eagle screeched and landed in the tall pine beside the house, and I watched in wonder for a small eternity before he silently beat outstretched wings and glided deeper into the forest. Titmice and chickadees cracked open sunflower seeds one by one. A green lizard sunbathed on the porch railing until warm enough to advertise his prowess by inflating his cantaloupe-colored neck pouches.

The quiet clicking of our knitting needles and our quiet attention to our stitches and to each other created safety, created a place to speak the history of our hearts, created sanctuary. Our deep listening created sacred space, and a place where we all belonged. In our circle, we spoke the horrors we survived, we honored our courage and strength, and we celebrated who we’ve become: incredible, creative women who drink deeply from life; courageous women who share our strength with those who cannot yet find their own; fiercely loving women who decide every day to turn bad to good, and so love this sweet old world and the people in it a little bit more.

And in our sanctuary, every stitch, every word, every breath, was a prayer.

Welcoming A New Year At Hospice

I hoped all morning that I would come up with something profound to write in honor of the first day of the new year. The start of a brand new year should bring some kind of profound revelation to guide the unfolding days and weeks ahead. Instead, it is an ordinary winter Tuesday, gray and rain soaked. Being Tuesday, I pack up harp and bench and music stand and drive with windshield wipers flapping on high to my regular 11 a.m. playing date at the hospice unit.

Two weeks ago, the last time I played, every bed on the unit was filled. The nurses were frantically busy with family members touring the unit for last minute hoped-for admissions for loved ones, and with arranging the discharges of patients who were now just stable enough to spend Christmas at home. Today it’s a calmer, quieter vibe. The Christmas tree is still up, lit, and sparkling. Crimson poinsettias in the windows are a brilliant contrast to the even darker rain clouds blowing by outside. Only half the rooms are occupied, and the staff have time to look up from their charting as I roll the harp by the nurses station and wish them a Happy New Year.

The room at the end of the hall, closest to where I play, has a sign on the closed door: “Do not disturb – patient resting.” I walk back to the nurses station and ask if I should set up the harp somewhere else on the unit, but the nurse assures me that the sign is to help the family limit visitors, and that I will be fine playing in my usual place. I am on my third piece when I hear the door open, and ten or so minutes later a tall man, dressed in a red plaid shirt and blue jeans wrinkled from too many nights spent sleeping in a hospital recliner, walks from the room to my side.

I smile hello and ask if my playing is too loud for his loved one, let him know that I can move down the hall if they need quiet. That’s not why he’s here. Instead, he says that the music is beautiful. His eyes fill as he tells me he’s there with his mother. She is near her end, and is not often coherent, but she hears the harp and smiles. He apologizes for the tears now finding their way down the creases on his cheeks. I don’t know if I can find the right words in response, but manage “Thank you,” and say that I hope the music will ease them both.

I’ve played at the hospice unit nearly every week since August. Patients have passed away while I was playing. Family members occasionally thank me as they walk by. Mostly I play in faith that Music will ease grieving hearts and tired spirits, without feedback that it makes a difference. But today, I feel consciously a part of this patient’s and family’s end-of-life journey.

I play longer than usual, play more slowly, more deliberately, with more air and space between the phrases of old Celtic tunes that give voice to love, longing, and heartache. Music is the thread connecting me to this family, to this mother and son who suddenly are no longer strangers, but instead are fellow travelers on this turning wheel of birth, life and death.

As I pack up to leave, the son steps outside of his mother’s room once more, to say thank you, to say again the the music was beautiful. This time, I think to tell him that it is an honor to play for them both, and that they will be in my thoughts today.

And so they are. As my new year begins with wonder and excitement about the unknown adventures that are ahead, her new year is ending. Soon she will travel off, as my friend Beth says, “to see what happens next.” Her son’s new year begins with the journey through grief and sadness, trudging through the days and weeks until the memories that pain him with reminders of all he’s lost transform into memories that bring him quiet joy.

It doesn’t sound wise or profound to write the simple truth that we’re all riding the same bus, on the same journey, to the same destination. It’s easy for me to forget that simple truth, to get caught up in my own story, and to feel isolated and alone in its plot line. But today Music won’t let me forget. Today, Music spins the thread that connects me to a larger story, a story of mothers and sons, a story of love and connection and learning how to say goodbye, where even a stranger with a harp has a part, and where I suddenly belong.

The Place I Belong

For as long as I can remember, the issue of feeling like I don’t belong and don’t have a place in the world has dogged me. Being an avid science fiction reader since fifth grade, I determined that the reason I did not fit in anywhere was that Earth was not my native planet. I knew that I must have been kidnapped by space gypsies at a very young age, and then genetically modified to resemble human beings. I could only hope that someday my real parents would find me and take me home.

I’m still here. And I figured out that Earth is not such a bad planet, once you get used to its inhabitants. When I became old enough to leave the small, backwards, right-wing conservative textile town I grew up in, I found other people who became members of my earth-bound tribe, and I began to find the places on this planet where I could belong.

But those old feelings of not belonging or having a place will still pop up unexpectedly, surprising me with their sudden painful intensity. I recognize them for what they are – ghosts of the past trying to haunt my present, ghosts that carry sadness and longing from places and times long gone – but these ghosts can still chill my heart, and leave me scrambling to find the place I belong in the present.

A morning of sleeping late at the beach called forth their latest apparition. I usually wake early to see the day come to life over the ocean, but this morning I was the last to rise. My six friends were sitting around the breakfast table, at the six places they set, in the six chairs that fit around the glass tabletop. Someone fixed pancakes for breakfast, and now there were only crumbs left in sticky puddles of syrup. They were drinking coffee, and the coffee pot was empty. No room at the table, no food, no coffee – quite enough to trigger old feelings and new, hot tears that I tried to blink away before anyone could see them.

Back in the real world, I knew that no one was trying to tell me I don’t belong. My friends made room at the table, and cooked fresh pancakes, and showed me the workings of the individual-cup coffee maker they were using because not one of us seven caffeine-dependent adults remembered to bring coffee filters. Still, the ghosts had once again chilled my heart, and I needed to find warmth.

After breakfast I pulled my harp over to the wide ocean-front window, and set up my harp bench and music stand so I could see the white-caps being pushed to shore by tropical storm Alberto. I sat on the bench, pulled the harp back to my shoulder and my heart, and in that daily ritual, I was where I belonged, where I am supposed to be, where I always have a place.

And on this morning I knew that it’s not just when I am at my harp lesson working with my teacher, it’s not just when I am making music with others in the recorder and early music ensembles, that I have a place. Music is the place I belong, wherever I am.

I allowed an easy practice, just letting tunes flow out my fingers, and I listened to the sounds of the harp join the sounds of breaking waves and raucous gulls. On this heart-chilled morning, Music wrapped me up and gave me the welcome into the day that my tears longed for, and turned my sadness into grace. My heart warmed with peace and gratitude for being blessed with harp and Music, and for knowing that I am not alone, and not without a place, with Music as my companion.