From the archives: A Christmas Story

I first posted this story in November 2010. I needed to read it again, and thought others might enjoy the trip in the Wayback Machine.

There were two women waiting together for their order at a coffee shop on a sunny afternoon, just a couple of weeks after Halloween. The shop was already decorated for Christmas, with red ribbons and sparkling lights strung throughout the crowded space. Muzak-ed Christmas carols could be heard under the din of coffee grinding and espresso brewing.

One of the women complained about how annoying it was to be bombarded with Christmas music and Christmas decorations and all the Christmas marketing before Thanksgiving could even be thought about, let alone celebrated.

The other woman had lived in Spain for a time, where, she said, not so much was made of Christmas – it was a day, not a season. One of the things she said she missed the most, and most enjoyed when she returned to the States, was all the lights and decorations and music that is so much a part of Christmas here.

The first woman listened to this story and wondered, “Who said that Christmas decorations should wait until December? Who said that this season of joy and good will should be limited to a week before Christmas? When did sparkling Christmas lights and decorated doors and shop fronts lose their magic?”

She looked around her, really seeing the twinkling lights draping the menu boards and window frames, taking in the sight of the baristas in red Santa hats pulling espresso shots. She could hear the melody of an old carol under the noise of people ordering drinks and milk being steamed. She inhaled a deep breath of air spiced with coffee and gingerbread, and smiled as this little bit of Christmas magic entered her heart.

And still this Christmas season, the sights of houses outlined in colored lights, yards festooned with inflated snowmen and Santas, Christmas trees viewed through neighbors’ windows, and the sounds of Christmas music both old and new make her smile; make her happy that this season of joy, peace and goodwill begins earlier and earlier in the streets and storefronts and in her heart. All because of a 30-second conversation while waiting for two cups of coffee to be poured.

We rarely get to know how what we say influences a life, how our story helps rewrite the story of another, or what gifts our words may become. To my friend, waiting with me in the coffee shop, I say, “Thank you – for your story, and the warmth of that cup of coffee, and the delight in Christmas that returned to me on that November day.”

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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.

Death and Life

My friend with pancreatic cancer died this afternoon. I did not get to go play my harp for her again. A nasty cold kept me away the past ten days. It seemed unfair to inflict sore throat, fever and sinus congestion on someone who is already dying. Enough is enough.

I am sad that I did not get to see her again, and grateful that she is no longer suffering.

The turning cogwheel of my world is missing more and more teeth: my dad, Leo, Bettie, Patti, Ruth, John, and now Roxann. Yet, “the big wheel keeps on turnin’, ” missing teeth and all, and life rolls on.

The life that rolled on tonight was the end-of-semester Recorder Ensemble concert. Again we had more people in the audience than we had playing on stage, and many members of the audience were not related to any of the recorder players . . . I guess our fame is spreading.

This semester’s music was the most challenging I’ve played since joining the ensemble five years ago. For many of the pieces I was the solo soprano amongst the flock of altos, tenors and basses.

Tonight, for the first time, I can say that I am happy with how I played in a concert. My stomach remained in its assigned place instead of in my throat, and my hair-trigger adrenal glands did not surprise me with a sudden overdose of adrenaline. While I was not note perfect on every piece, I never lost the flow of the music, never lost the beat, and never lost the joy of playing.

Tonight, with my friend’s death heavy in my heart, I am grateful to still be in this silly old world, even with all its missing pieces. I’m grateful to be able to play music, grateful to be able to still walk among the trees and beneath the stars and with the friends who remain close by my side. I’m grateful to be able to say, “I’m happy with how I played tonight,” and to go to sleep with a satisfied mind.

50 Shades Of Gratitude

Every night I write at least three things from my day for which I am grateful, and say my favorite prayer: “Thank you.”

In honor of Thanksgiving, here are 50 things from this year’s gratitude journal.  I am grateful for:

  1. Being strong and healthy enough to enjoy my life.
  2. Being safe, warm and dry on a day with flooding rain.
  3. After days of rain and gray clouds, the surprise appearance of the sun.
  4. The continued presence of old friends in my life.
  5. The surprise and delight of new friendships.
  6. My acupuncturist/massage therapist who keeps the worst of the fibromyalgia at bay.
  7. My chiropractor who makes headaches go away.
  8. My yoga teacher and the community that is my yoga class.
  9. My harp teacher’s deep listening, patience and encouragement.
  10. My recorder teacher’s support and encouragement to play stuff that too hard for me to learn alone.
  11. Catherine’s ongoing presence in my life and support of all my creative adventures.
  12. Debbie’s patience and generosity in teaching me how to knit.
  13. My mechanic who figures out all my old car’s problems and keeps it running.
  14. Being welcomed by and sharing laughter with my knitting group every Wednesday.
  15. Being able to afford what I need.
  16. White beans and kale.
  17. My harp teacher saying I did good work.
  18. Time to practice.
  19. A sweet note from a music friend saying that she values my friendship.
  20. New warm mittens.
  21. Cherry trees flowering in billowing clouds of pink.
  22. Thunder snow.
  23. Such understanding and supportive blog comments about crashing and burning with sight-reading.
  24. Sharing music and life with my harp friends.
  25. The kindness and friendliness of the nurse giving me my allergy shot.
  26. Staying calm and centered during Consort rehearsal.
  27. Lima beans and rice.
  28. A chance to sing.
  29. New pants that fit.
  30. The gift of a place to stay at the beach.
  31. The sight, sound, and smell of the ocean.
  32. Seeing my friends in the audience at the harp concert.
  33. A sky blue pink sunset.
  34. A soft green world on my morning walk.
  35. Letting go of judging how I played today.
  36. Hyacinths, wisteria and tulips.
  37. A morning warm enough to sit on the patio and write.
  38. The joy of making music with the recorder ensemble and early music consort.
  39. The smell of jasmine.
  40. The feeling of air caressing the back of my neck when I am driving with the windows down.
  41. A clean house, and sweet Allison who makes that happen.
  42. Soft rain reminding me of Ireland.
  43. Playing at the Hospice Remembrance Service without fear.
  44. Hawk surveying the world sitting on the tree limb outside my back door.
  45. Being welcomed by the nurses and staff when I roll my harp into the hospice unit.
  46. The smell of magnolias.
  47. First blueberries and peaches.
  48. Being welcomed by my favorite farmers at the Saturday market.
  49. Two cardinals feeding each other.
  50. Crape myrtle flower petals drifting through the air like snow.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Visitation

Angels often appear in human form, disguised as people that we know. Last Monday angels appeared in the guise of my harp teacher and of my friend Mary Lou.

This autumn I am a time traveler, unanchored and unmoored to the present. Time is fluid, with rapids and backwaters that float me from now to then and long ago. Caught in an eddy I return to now, only to drift towards some future that awaits my arrival there.

But beauty lives only in the present moment, in this now, not in some drama acted out long ago or yet to come.

At last week’s harp ensemble rehearsal, Mary Lou played her arrangement of Pretty Saro, and my harp teacher sang the song’s mournful words. The time river ceased to run. I was pinned to the present, anchored in glorious harmonies of harp and voice, with no past or future to pull me into time’s deep waters. I was awash in grace, my heart eased by angels in human form. The only prayer I know to say is “Thank you.”

Fearless On The Harp Bench

20130609-122719.jpgThe Hospice music ministry volunteer coordinator called at the end of March and asked if I would play my harp for their annual Service of Remembrance in early May. Play solo harp, that is. For the entire ceremony. By myself. I could distinctly hear the ghost of Nancy Reagan whispering in my ear, saying “Just say no.” But thanks to my Three Non-negotiable Decisions, what I heard myself say was “Of course. I’d love to. It would be a pleasure. Thank you for asking me.”

She asked me to play 20 minutes before the service started, approximately 20 minutes while people walked from their chairs to place a white rose in a wreath in memory of their loved ones, and another 15 to 20 minutes while people left the hospital’s labyrinth courtyard where the service would be held.

Thanks to the past months of playing at the hospital hospice unit, I had more than enough repertoire to play for an hour. I selected a medley of Celtic tunes for gathering music. I’d been working on a long piece with a soothing melody in the middle section. My teacher helped me figure out how to introduce and then loop that section so I could play it multiple times during the wreath ceremony. I wrote a bridge to another soothing tune that I could play until the last flower was placed. I selected four of the contemporary tunes I play on the unit for the closing music.

Driving to the hospital on the morning of the service, I prayed for calm, and quiet and steady hands. I arrived early enough to sit in my car and meditate for 20 minutes. Following my breath, I found a place of alert and steady awareness, of easy breathing and quiet mind. I had plenty of time to load my harp and bench on my cart and walk slowly through the hospital corridors to the courtyard. I had plenty of time to set up and tune my harp, and to try the beginnings of several tunes, which warmed up my fingers and let me preview how the harp would sound in the brick-walled space. Hospice staff rehearsed the order of the ceremony, so I was clear on my cues to start and stop playing. The low gray clouds spitting rain finally lifted, and pale sunshine tried to warm my fingers. I peeled off my fingerless gloves and began to play.

On this morning I was blessed with an absence of fear. I was blessed with the focus of being of service to those who wished to remember their loved ones and ease their aching hearts. I was blessed with gratitude to be able to offer Music as a balm for healing. I was blessed with grace to play more smoothly and comfortably than I ever have before.

I had a few fumble-fingered moments, but on this morning I played through them without panic. A couple of weeks before the remembrance service I participated in Madeline Bruser’s second teaching call. That night’s exercise was to play a phrase extremely slowly, and let the sound enter my body without rushing to the next note – instead, to just let the next note emerge from the sound I was already feeling. The carryover from that exercise on this morning was trusting that the next note was on its way, was streaming towards me, was already present. I didn’t have to panic about finding it. I just had to pluck the string.

It really was a pleasure, and an honor, to play for the remembrance service. People stopped on their way out of the courtyard to thank me for playing, to say that the music was perfect for the ceremony. The hospice administrative staff offered enthusiastic thank you’s. But it was my friend and fellow hospice harp volunteer Dani who recognized what I had accomplished, saying “Today is a real milestone for you. You looked and sounded confident, and the music was beautiful. You would not have done this a year ago.”

Dani and I play together in the harp ensemble. She’s witnessed the fear freezing me, or making my hands shake so violently that I could not keep my fingers on my harp strings. She’s been recruited to be an “audience” at my lessons as I practiced breathing and moving forward playing a piece while my adrenal glands hijacked my hands and my memory.

During the worst of the performance anxiety, when I could not even play at my lessons without shaking from massive adrenaline overdoses, I told my teacher that I would not be doing this work, would not be persisting in staring down the terror, were it not for my completely unreasonable assurance that someday I would say, “Oh yes, I used to be bothered by performance anxiety, but not anymore.”

On this morning I took a leap into the reality where that is so, into the reality where I am fearless on the harp bench. Playing my harp without fear – it’s a blessing long sought, and an accomplishment dearly earned.

A Beach Morning

I awake this morning to a cloudless sky and twin suns: one above and one reflected in the mirror of the ocean. Pelicans are already on the wing, gliding mere inches above gentle swells being pulled towards land. Bluebirds and purple martins perform acrobatics above the dune vegetation, warning me that today the sun will be warm enough to coax gnats and no-see-’ems from winter slumber.

Despite this morning’s late winter chill, I bring coffee and journal to the deck, where the entire arc of the horizon is unobstructed. The weathered oak bench soaked up the night’s freezing temperature, and my pajamas offer no resistance to the cold. The sun is not yet high enough to offer much countering warmth. No matter. Coffee warms from the inside out.

Terns are cavorting in the ripples of the morning’s small waves. Like small children, they leap over the approaching breakers and with wings still flapping, settle back into the water to float until the next wave. There’s maybe a hundred of them playing in the waves, waiting for the new tide to deliver breakfast. As the current carries them down the beach it is harder and harder to distinguish the sparkling white of their wings from the white of the wave tops.

Despite the cold, the air is still. The winter-bare stalks of sea oats barely waver in the morning air. Ocean sounds fill the air. The land birds are yet silent, and slow to greet the morning. The sounds of shore birds are drowned out by the swishes and booms of waves. Even these small foot-high swells have a big voice.

So begins my last peaceful morning at the beach. Tomorrow morning will be filled with carrying my things down the 30 steps to my car, and readying the condo for the next arrival, whoever and whenever that may be. I am grateful for this calm, clear morning, for the sunrise that called me out of bed to see this day begin. The sights and sounds and feel of this morning are my spiritual breakfast, a communion offered by Creation to all who sit at Nature’s table.

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The Transformative Power Of Snow And Friendship

Waking To Sunday Morning Snow
Sunday Morning Snow

“A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” – Author unknown

I thought we were done with winter. Daffodils began blooming in January. The star magnolias and tulip magnolias burst their buds this week and are in full flower. Migratory robins are dining daily on the worms that rain drives to the surface in my soggy back yard, and chickadees are already gathering sticks for their nests. Friday I walked the neighborhood in shirt sleeves, under long-awaited crystal blue skies.

Yesterday I awoke to snow showers, to saucer-sized flakes drifting past my upstairs window. Snow soon turned to another day of the gray, drizzly rain that is the hallmark of this winter, and I thought we were done with the excitement and beauty that snow promises in the South.

About five in the afternoon Charley ran downstairs to where I was practicing recorder. She rarely takes the stairs on her own, but the first flashes of lightning and rolling booms of thunder explained why she sought me out. She hates storms, and usually predicts their arrival several minutes before I am aware of a change in the weather.

With another explosion of lightning and thunder, snow poured out of the sky. An hour later an inch clung to the fence posts and daffodils. By the end of the storm there was almost three inches covering the ground and outlining each tree branch.

This morning I awoke to a crystalline wonderland. The morning sun lit the top branches of the crape myrtle and cedar, making them sparkle with fairy dust. My back yard was transformed from mud and mire to a white canvas that captured the beauty of the snowy night.

The mud and mire of my heart’s distress is also transformed by the comments and emails I received in response to my post The Yawning Gulf Between Where I Am And Where I Want To Be. You helped me regain both perspective and faith that sight-reading skills do not make one a musician, and that I am a musician whether I ever sight-read another note. You helped me remember what I have accomplished with the harp, and helped me refocus on what I can do instead of seeing only what is still beyond where I am today. You assured me that I will find my way back to the joy that is Music. You held onto the song in my heart when I could not hear it, and sang it back to me when I needed it most. Thank you for your caring, your kindness and your support, and for being my companions on this journey.

 

Gratitude For The “No-Toothache”

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about our human tendency to notice that which pains us and to not notice the absence of those same troubles. We complain bitterly about the toothache, but do not notice or give thanks for the “no-toothache,” for the days when the tooth does not hurt and so does not capture our attention.

Tonight, at this moment, my loved ones are safe and well. Tonight, I am also safe at my computer, closing out my thoughts for the day, my body and my life far removed from Connecticut. I feel dismay and sadness over this senseless killing, over the loss of these young lives and the lives of the adults who dedicated themselves to the education of children and the betterment of the human spirit. But my feelings are abstract, full with compassion, yet safely distant from this event. I am not a parent burying my child. I am not a husband whose wife will never return home from work, or a child whose mother will never again walk through my front door. My body has not been slammed into an entirely new existence containing only pain and horror. My memory does not rewind and replay the terror of those moments when life was stolen from so many innocents, young and old.

Tonight I notice the no-heartbreak and give thanks.

Harp Ensemble + Gratitude = A Concert I Could Do Again

Last year, the day after the harp ensemble concert, I was so physically undone from the stress of performing that I doubted I would continue in the ensemble. I could not imagine choosing to endure another night of nausea, sweating, shaking, heart palpitations, chest tightness, and all the other symptoms of involuntary adrenaline overdose.

This morning I thought, “Hmm, our concert last night was fun. I could do that again.”

I don’t know that I played that much better in last night’s performance. There were long passages of air harp as I searched for a measure that everyone else was playing. When I played my solo, there was enough adrenaline coursing through my body to cause the last five measures of the first section to disappear from my brain, leaving not a trace of their prior existence on my cerebral cortex.

But no panic ensued. I managed to find my way back on board and end tunes at the same time as everybody else. In my solo, I kept the mangled arpeggio going all the way up the harp, ended on a note that would soon be heard in a chord at my “rescue spot,” breathed, and started the next section. Only my teacher and the people who’ve heard me practice Grandjany’s Barcarole recognized my moments of “spontaneous composing.” (Thanks go to Joanna Mell for the wonderful re-naming of improvising one’s way out of a musical crash-and-burn!)

The last eight weeks of grounding myself in gratitude for being able to play the harp, for having a harp to play, for being blessed with an incredible teacher and a community of friends to play with filled up all the places in me that last year were occupied by doubt, dread, and fear. It’s not that I didn’t have performance nerves – my chest was tight all afternoon in anticipation, and my hands were definitely shaking as I wondered where in the world that strange, unplanned arpeggio might end up. It’s that the performance nerves just didn’t matter. Gratitude posted a no vacancy sign and told fear and doubt that there was no room for them in my thoughts or in my heart. Gratitude informed the Inner Critic that no one was interested in his commentary. Gratitude reminded me to enjoy every note I was able to play, and to appreciate the love of the music and the harp that we shared with our audience and each other. And Gratitude whispered of the improbable miracle that a frame of wood, a bunch of string, and human hearts and hands can join together to create beauty, and said, “Rejoice!”