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.


Hope and Gratitude

Today is our first truly winter morning, with cold rain and sleet yesterday and heavy frost last night. Each leaf of clover is outlined with ice, leaving clumps of magic shamrocks in my yard this morning. The neighborhood trees, which just last Sunday were still brilliant with garnet, topaz, crimson and sardonyx leaf-jewels, are now mostly bare, thanks to last Tuesday’s wind and yesterday’s rain. The leaves that remain, willow oaks mostly, are faded to a uniform dun brown.

The great walls of leaf-filled plastic bags stacked for pick-up at each driveway are diminishing in both height and breadth. Those stalwart grass growers who defied September’s heat and drought with hope, core aeration and reseeding, whose sprinklers have cleansed the streets and sidewalks every morning, are this week rewarded with kelly-green sprigs of their new fescue lawns emerging from under the shag carpet of leaves. My own bio-diverse yard sprouts equally lush green stands of clover, chickweed and henbit, without benefit of seed, fertilizer or daily watering.

My friends Pam and Maddy, who hosted Thanksgiving dinner, started a tradition of a Thanksgiving Day gratitude album, where the friends and family they gathered around their table could write their appreciation for what the year had brought them. Their album went missing about three years ago,  but returned from its hiding place for our 2010 Thanksgiving dinner. And so, I could read what I wrote in 2004:

Autumn disguises itself as a season of endings, but really it is a season of beginnings. It’s the possibility of the new leaf that pushes the old leaf off the branch. It’s the colorful carpet of leaves on the forest floor that shelters the new sprout of the acorn as it dreams of oak-ness. I am grateful for new beginnings and for the old life that shelters them. I am grateful for new traditions with old friends, for shared warmth, food and laughter around the table. I am grateful for homes where I am welcomed as a friend. Blessings to all for this day of thanks.

Thanksgiving 2004 marked a year of a new beginning. I had just started harp lessons, and was still learning to pluck and close with single fingers. There were no inklings of the life I live now – no harp ensemble, no recorder ensemble, no performing, no harp to hold in my arms and play every day. No friendships with other musicians. No garden. No thoughts of retirement. No hints of what fills my life and heart today.

This is another year of new beginnings, sheltered and grown on the forest floor of the last six years. So much that was unknown and unthought of in 2004 is my source of feeling alive and joyful today. So who can say, or imagine, what new life is sprouting under the protective blanket of my todays, that will grow strong and tall and give a bountiful harvest of life and joy in my years to come.



Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and my high holy day for my one successful spiritual practice, gratitude. I don’t hold many opinions about religion or about the spiritual side of life on this planet. But I know and firmly believe that the Creator, whoever/whatever that may be, wants us to notice, appreciate and give thanks for this creation in which we spend our earthly lives, and that “Thank you” is the highest form of spoken prayer.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I say “thank you” for:

  • birdsong as the sun is creeping slowly over the horizon
  • bright yellow leaves in the road, animated by passing cars so that the pavement is filled with little yellow dancing sprites
  • as much clean water as I need that I do not have to haul
  • all the farmers at my local farmer’s market who have staked their livelihood on producing fresh, healthy food that I can eat
  • compost, and the miracle that turns leaves and kitchen scraps into rich brown humus alive with earthworms
  • my public library, and all the staff who maintain such a friendly and welcoming atmosphere despite severe budget cuts that affected their livelihood and their ability to do their jobs
  • pomegranates
  • electronic tuners
  • my old cell phone that tells me “Goodbye!” when I tune it off
  • my friend Beth – and that after 40 years we have not run out of conversations
  • my harp teacher and her infinite patience and support
  • my recorder teachers and all they taught me this year about playing music vs. playing notes
  • my harp and recorder ensemble classmates, and their patience with a novice player trying to be a musician
  • my partner and her support for all my life’s endeavors
  • my cat crawling onto and sleeping on my hip every night
  • my dog, whose spirit brings joy into any lingering dark corner of my heart
  • the administrators at my old job, who successfully made my work life so miserable that I decided to retire
  • my chiropractor and my massage therapist, who keep this body tuned-up and functional
  • the nesting pair of hawks in my backyard neighbor’s trees, and their keening cries as they set off on their early morning hunts, circling the thermals that arise as the sun begins to warm the neighborhood pavements
  • Catherine, creativity midwife extraordinaire, who unerringly reads the hidden messages of my heart
  • my soul-sister Ruth Ann, and our connection that continues across time, distance and lifetimes
  • Pam and Maddy, friends who choose me as family and make a place for this orphan and only child around their Thanksgiving table
  • my JPG Harp Camp tribe, Lisa, Debbie, and Sara, and the lovely afternoon spent speaking from our hearts
  • the time outside of time spent in the magic of Debbie’s creekside cabin, where trees whisper secrets and cares float away on the water
  • rain, whenever it may fall, given its rarity these past months
  • the authors of the many books that are guides and companions as I make my way in this funny old world
  • pictures of the earth from space
  • the musicians in my community who create so many opportunities for hearing incredible music

And finally, immense gratitude for the opportunity to retire and start this new life, this new adventure, that in two short months has already been so interesting and rewarding.

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.