Friday, April 30, 2010

On Poetry

April is National Poetry Month, and I fear I have reached the last day of the month without paying any homage to something I so deeply love. Like Jesse Stuart, I want to call out:

Hold onto April: never let her pass!Another year before she comes again…

But April has passed. Or will after the day ends. And I have spent it immersed in grant writing and Chasing Light…, when I wasn't chasing bills and laundry and all of the various and sundry things that came across my path this month.

The closest I got to poetry this month was watching the middle school poetry jam that was a Chasing Light… community event. That and catching some shards that our visiting composer used in his talks.

I used to write poetry. A lot of poetry. Poetry fascinated me, poetry held me. It was the warp and the woof of my most inner self. As late as my early 40s, I had a folder, some six inches thick, that contained poems and fragments of poems and ideas for poems dating back more than two decades.

But those were very bleak times and after one too many post-midnight inquisitions by an unstable spouse as to "who are you writing about?" or "what does this line mean?" or "what are you hiding?," I took the folder to the office and spent three hours shredding every last piece of poetry I had ever written.

My words were too dangerous to own.

I was numb as I sat there feeding the sheets into the shredder. That was a good thing, because otherwise I would have dropped to the floor from a broken heart that day.

Sometimes lines from the shredded works come back to me, like little ghosts. They shimmer and rustle in the air, fading away if I try too hard to sound them out.

Sometimes I think about writing poetry again. This week, spending time with our visiting composer and hearing him talk about composing music, I have found my thoughts often drifting to poetry.

Could I write poetry again? Will I remember how it feels to kindle words into light? Will I still know how to do it?

I don't know. Not counting an occasional parody or some light verse, I've only written two poems since the Day of the Shredder. Neither has been read aloud, not even to Warren.

Time will tell. It's another year until April comes again.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Diving In

I learned to swim at the old pool (the old, long gone pool up at the fairgrounds) over the course of several summers when my mother enrolled me and my brothers in Red Cross swimming lessons. There was a progression to the classes - first we were Tadpoles, then Minnows, then Something Else. With each class, we gained a few more skills, a little more confidence in our ability to navigate the water safely.

Somewhere along the line - the summer I was 10 perhaps - whatever level class I was in required us to jump off the high dive and dog paddle to the ladder in the deep end before we could complete the class. My best friend Cindy (who was in the same class) and I agonized over this requirement for days. The board was so HIGH. What if we lost our balance and fell off the side? What if we got dizzy? What if we hit the water the wrong way and hurt ourselves? What if our suit straps came undone? What if, what if, what if…?

The real question was, of course, what if we were too chicken to jump and had to climb back down?

The day of the Big Jump arrived. I can't remember which one of us went first. (Me, I think, but that may just be a trick of my memory.) I remember though that all-alone-at-the-top-of-the-world feeling I got when I stood at the edge of the board and looked down at the impossibly far away water. Our instructor called up encouraging words. There was a line of others behind me. There was a host of butterflies in my stomach.

Somehow, somewhere inside of me I willed myself to bend my knees and jump. There was a sensation of the water rushing up to meet me, then submersion, then the incredulousness as I broke back through the surface of the water. I remember paddling to the ladder thinking "I DID IT!"

Cindy did it too. We laughed and shrieked at our accomplishments. Giving high fives had not yet come into vogue, but we would have slapped each other's hand silly if it had. On the way home, we both reminded our younger siblings (still Minnows, still Tadpoles) that we had jumped off the High Drive.

That jump is on my mind because we have come to the end of April, four months into a year already rushing along at breakneck pace, and I am once again feeling like I am climbing the ladder to the high dive. The week just starting is concert week, always an intense time in this household.

But this is not any old concert week. This is Big Concert week - the biggest of Warren's tenure as Executive Director, the biggest of 31 seasons of concert weeks. This is Chasing Light… week. It will be full of talks and special events and extra rehearsals and a reception midweek and, well, you get the picture. (If you don't, click here.)

"50 states. 58 orchestras. One remarkable composition." (I wrote that line, incidentally.)

Last year, the Symphony was chosen to take part in the Ford Made in America program, the largest composition consortium in history. As such, it will be performing Chasing Light…, an original composition by Pulitzer Prize winning composer, Joseph Schwantner, at its May 1 concert. Just being asked to participate in the program was a huge honor.

But wait, there's more!

Warren asked about the chances of having a residency with the composer. Despite being told the odds of receiving one were slim, Warren, being Warren, nonetheless put together an ambitious and creative proposal that tied together music, poetry, and the creative process of composition. Last July, he got the call telling him the Symphony had been selected to receive a residency with the composer.

Schwantner arrives in town Tuesday.

To say next week will be a full one is an understatement. To say this household will be stretched to the limits in terms of time and activities is also an understatement. As I type these words, Warren is in the shop, finishing reengineering his vibraphone, which he will play in the concert. Five feet away from me is a stand he built to hold four crotales needed for the piece. Beyond that in the front room are the metal frames of gong stands and trap tables. There is an impossibly large Chinese gong propped against the couch. I see a score on the arm of one chair; the triangle playing machine (which he invented for this concert) is just on the other side.

This is Chasing Light… Central.

I don't pretend that I have responsibilities and duties like Warren does this coming week. Oh, I'll be pitching in - proofreading, running errands, hauling instruments - throughout the week, just like many of his Board members. But the burden of this week falls on Warren, who goes to bed later and later each night and gets up earlier and earlier each day as the time winds down and the activities crank up.

But if Warren is on the high dive about to jump into the coming week, I am right behind him, next in line. When you are married to the Symphony like I am, you know that whatever the week holds in store for it and Warren, it also holds in store for me.

One summer long ago I learned all about climbing a ladder and leaping into thin air, hoping for the best. I learned I could do it; I learned I liked doing it. I did it again and again that summer.

From where I stand now, May 1 looks impossibly far away. I know, though, it will rush up with speed and intensity. I know that by this time next week, we will already be out of the pool, laughing and cheering.

It's time to jump.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Loving Shakespeare

Poor William Shakespeare.

So many folks automatically make a face when they hear his name. I used to work with a woman who would wrinkle her nose and announce loudly, "I hate Shakespeare," the moment she heard me refer to him. Never mind that she hadn't read anything by him since leaving high school many years earlier. She hated him and that was all there was to it.

Me? I love the guy. He was funny, he was brilliant, he was amazing. He had a vocabulary of over 60,000 words. Most of us - then and now - do well to have 20,000 words (and we all use far less in our everyday lives).

This guy loved words. He breathed words. He ate words three times a day and for his bedtime snack as well. I bet he moved in a constant cloud of words - in his head, on his tongue, in his heart.

And the phases and words he gave us! Chances are with so many of them that Shakespeare said it first. What the dickens! The game is up! For goodness sake! Vanished into thin air! Tongue-tied! Fair play! Seen better days! In a pickle!

It's Greek to me (yes, his words) why Shakespeare has such a bad rap.

In defense of Shakespeare, it's not his fault. He has often been badly taught by too many poorly prepared teachers. Not understanding the Bard themselves, they pass their own confusion and disdain on to their students, who, like my former coworker, end up hating Shakespeare. I still remember the "Meet the Teacher" night several years ago when Sam's literature teacher for the year brandished with great glee a CliffNotes edition of Julius Caesar, reassuring us that it would make Shakespeare "so much easier" (apparently for her).

A pox on both her houses! I wanted to send her packing.

As luck would have it, I had good fortune in abundance when it came to Shakespeare. Before I ever started high school, I had a summer camp cabin mate, a year older and infinitely wiser in the ways of high school literature, advise me that the way to "get" Shakespeare was to read him out loud for the rhythm and feel of his dialogue. She was right. Second, I went through high school during a magical era that, looking back, I can only call the Golden Age of English at Hayes. Kay Hearn, Steve Tobias, Arlene Gregory, Roberta Rollins - these were my guides to Shakespeare (and others). Shakespeare wrote plays that spanned the breadth of the human experience and I am forever indebted to those teachers for helping me glimpse the depth and reach of his writings.

There was no such as thing as too much of a good thing when it came to Shakespeare, as far as I was (and still am) concerned.

Part of the reason Shakespeare sets our teeth on edge is our own fault. We forget to put him in the right context. We pigeonhole his plays into tiny, airless slots of formality. He suffers from an overabundance of High Culture.

Put yourself in Elizabethan England. Performances were held at the Globe, an open air theatre. They were held during the day because there was no night lighting. If you had money, you sat in the galleries to watch. If you had a lot of money, you sat right on stage. If you were one of the masses, as most playgoers were, a penny bought you the right to stand on the ground at stage level. There were no elaborate sets, few costumes. There was no acoustical engineering, let alone mics, amps, and sound systems. Lines were shouted. The pace was fast - the actors had to hold the audience's attention as well as move the play along so it would be done before darkness descended.

So you had this sea of humanity (plays were well-attended in Elizabethan London), many of them mere feet away from actors strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage, members of the audience calling out comments and adding to the dialogue, and everyone - everyone! - talking about the play as it finished and the audience exited in waves. Shakespeare was the talk of the town as well as the toast of the town.

And what did we do to poor Will Shakespeare? We slowed him down. We put him in a suit and tie, or at least a velvet doublet. We made him sit up straight and comb his hair. No wonder so many bid him good riddance once they finish high school lit classes.

Far too many are hoodwinked into thinking of Shakespeare as this creaky ancient incomprehensible dead dude that has absolutely nothing to say to us in our modern world, when in face he has everything to say.

Several years ago, a group known as Shakespeare Express performed "The Taming of the Shrew" at our local college. The troupe was known for its fast-paced, minimalist but accurate performances of Shakespeare's works. They performed in Gray Chapel, where our Symphony plays. Gray Chapel was the perfect venue, because the seating begins right at the stage's edge, not unlike the Globe in Shakespeare's time. Some audience members were seated on the stage. The actors played without sound equipment and with the simplest of stage props. They performed at breakneck pace and they were superb. I had two seventh grade boys with me that night - an age and gender notoriously considered "Shakespeare inappropriate" - and they were both blown away by a work written some 400 years earlier.

I wish more young people met Shakespeare that way, instead of through (shudder) CliffNotes hawked by the teacher. It is high time we had a Shakespeare immersion program in this country. I can imagine troupes of actors barnstorming from town to town bringing Shakespeare - the real Shakespeare, the plays as he meant them to be performed - to all of us.

I like to think of Will Shakespeare in our era. I bet he would be on Facebook. For sure he would love YouTube. A blogger? Maybe not. After all, the play's the thing.

Shakespeare's birthday is traditionally celebrated April 23rd, and this year marks his 446th one. I'd love to have a cake with that many candles on it for him. I'll settle for a cupcake.

And that's the long and the short of it (yep, you got it - he said it).

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Useful Girl

I rarely write about books on this blog because if I did, it would just turn into a running commentary on what I am reading today, tomorrow, or two days from now.

Despite that, my thoughts today are the direct result of a recently finished novel, Useful Girl by Marcus Spence. Useful Girl is set in Montana in the 1990s, with a story inside the story set in the 1870s. The modern story follows a young woman, Erin, who has to make some major life decisions; the secondary story follows a young Cheyenne girl, Moehae, who is caught in the turmoil and violence of the Indian wars in the region.

The title comes from an evocative scene towards the end of the novel. Moehae is dying of exposure and an infected gunshot wound. Her mother cradles the feverish girl and slips silver thimbles on each finger of her daughter's right hand. She tells Moehae the thimbles are so the Great Spirit would know she could sew and was therefore a "useful girl."

It is a haunting scene. It is a haunting thought.

Am I a useful girl? I think I am. I hope I am.

Yesterday was a full day, starting the night before when I baked four apple pies. In the morning. two pies went across the back yard to our friend Kris's house, as later that day she and her family and friends were gathering to celebrate the life of her husband Tom, who died suddenly last month. The other two pies went with me to the Community Impact Council (CIC) meeting for United Way. We were meeting to determine the allocation of our United Way campaign donations, which ended up totaling more than 2.1 million dollars.

Six hours later, our work done, I rushed home from CIC, hastily changed clothes, then headed to Mansfield with Warren for a rehearsal and concert. In the break tween the two, he and I sat in his truck in the parking lot and worked on the subscription brochure for the upcoming Symphony season. Warren had a rough draft of last year's copy with the word "engage" dropped in as a possible theme. I stared unhappily at it for about 20 minutes, muttering my discontent, before I felt the tiniest tug of inspiration. We talked about it, I made some notes, and this morning I wrote a new draft with a related yet different direction.

After the concert and the hour-plus drive back home, we unloaded the gear (being married to a percussionist means there is always something to unload after a concert) and then slipped out the back and across the lawn to Kris's house. We entered through the kitchen, where Emily, the younger daughter, was seated with her grandmother. After a hard hug, she pointed us towards the hallway, saying "the concert is that way - just follow the sound of guitars."

We came upon on full room, so full we stood out in the hallway until Kate, the older daughter, found us two chairs. We could hear someone playing guitar and singing-talking his way through stories about Tom. Kris was on the couch, leaning against someone else, both tears and smiles on her face. Others in the room were calling out additions to the story. Some were laughing, some were crying, some were doing both. Earlier, Kate told us, there had been spectacular fireworks (Tom's favorite way to celebrate) in the backyard. Earlier there had been many, many friends and family and neighbors eating and talking and crying and laughing. It was a moving, heartfelt celebration of the life of Tom Prengaman and, late and tired as we were, I'm glad we shared in it, if even for a little bit.

This morning, I told Warren how moved I was by the love and friendship I saw last night at Tom's celebration and how I wanted something like that after I die. He gently said "I knew you were thinking about that," and squeezed my hand. I then shared with him the above scene from Useful Girl, saying I found myself wondering, "am I a useful girl?" and, if I was, what items would show that?

A rolling pin? A pie pan? A pen?

They say "you can't take it with you," so I probably don't need a rolling pin slipped into my hands when I die. But I hope after my death that my friends and family gather together and celebrate my pies and my writing and my love of community. I hope there is music and laughter, good food and soft moments, as Warren and the rest share stories about this useful girl.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ellen's Garden

My mother-in-law Ellen died six years ago today, on my husband's fiftieth birthday. Later today Warren and I will stop at the cemetery where she and Arthur, who died exactly five weeks earlier, are buried and spend some time with them both. Maybe that is why she has been so much on my mind lately.

Maybe she is on my mind because yesterday we had the opportunity to spend time with one of Warren's nieces, in town for a soccer tournament, and at lunch Kaiti spoke about her grandmother. Kaiti was only eleven when Ellen died, but clearly she has a deep-rooted appreciation of her grandmother. She even told us a story that we had not heard before.

Maybe she is on my mind because, living in this house that she and Arthur built some 45-plus years ago, I am always mindful of her presence. The dessert glasses recently moved again after long months of quiet; I came downstairs one afternoon last week to find one at the edge of the shelf on which it sits.

Maybe she is on my mind because Ellen's chives are up.

Ellen was a prodigious gardener. She loved gardening - I have heard that repeatedly from her family and close friends. In her later years, she only grew flowers, but when Warren and his brother and sister were young, Ellen and Art planted large vegetable gardens.

The only remnants of those gardens, besides some black and white photos, are random stands of chives in the corner of the lot, where Warren's shed now stands. Last summer, I transplanted several clumps to the kitchen garden. I initially despaired of them "taking," but once the broccoli came down and the chives (along with everything else) got some sun, the results were stunning.

The chives wintered over and just recently I cut back the old growth. Warren commented yesterday, "maybe it's time to cut the chives back." I commented that I had just cut them back, then looked out the window. Where last week there had just been some stubs of chives, this week there were stands of them a foot or so tall.

Ellen would be so happy.

In the Jewish faith, the anniversary of one's death, from sunset to sunset, is a yahrzeit. Observant Jews light a yahrzeit candle, which burns 24 hours, on that day and it is day of remembrance and mourning.

I have also read about the yahrzeit being a day to celebrate, albeit quietly and respectfully, a life that was, a life - especially that of a parent - that touched your life and made a positive imprint upon it. Some families tell stories and share meaningful memories of the dead on that day.

Under Jewish law, today would not be Ellen's yahrzeit, because it is calculated on a Jewish calendar, not a standard calendar. But for someone like me, no longer of that faith but still deeply appreciative of its customs, yahrzeit is something I can transplant into my life, and April 11 is the day I know as Ellen's yahrzeit. And in listening to Kaiti and Warren talk about Ellen yesterday and in seeing her chives come back to life after the long winter, we are in our own small way honoring and observing the joy and love that was Ellen.

Ellen Wilson Hyer, June 13, 1921 - April 11, 2004.

Friday, April 9, 2010


My status posts on Facebook over the last few weeks tell the tale:

Up to [my] eyes in grant writing.

Too short a weekend, too much to do, can it be Monday already?

At times, writing this grant is like waiting for Godot.

Sunshine, warming temps, sprouting seeds, daffodils....oh yeah, grant writing.

All grant all the time.

That bright light up ahead is either the light at the end of this grant writing tunnel or else a locomotive coming full throttle right at me.

And then, finally, this last night:

Almost a train wreck, but at the last moment, the smoke cleared, the din died, and it really was the end of the tunnel after all...the grant is IN!

While I was still in the middle of my United Way March Madness, I plunged into a grant project for the courts. It was a federal grant, which are always bears. It was a big grant, which meant lots of details and lots of calculations and lots of discussion.

I was the grant writer and one of four members of the grant team.

"The" grant writer, not "a" grant writer. Everyone else on the team read my copy, threw in their ideas, helped massage and shape the project, but I'm the one that wrote. And wrote. And wrote. One team member bought me an ice cream cone the day before the grant was due. He could tell by the look on my face as we waited in line at Dairy Depot that my mind was on the grant. He was right; as soon as he dropped me off at home, I went in and started writing again.

And I kept writing. Right up until about 9:30 yesterday morning, when I finally said, in the quiet of this house, "I'm done."

It was touch and go until late yesterday afternoon as to whether we would be able to file the grant. Several of us spent the day trying to jump through the electronic hoops, which were foolishly left for last, but finally, sitting in Steve's office at 4:45 as the office day wound down right along with the submission clock, everything fell into place. I uploaded the documents one by one, hit "submit," and got a confirmation a minute later.

That was it. It is done. I am grateful.

Although working on the grant was grueling, it was also a time during which I spent long hours and days doing what I love: writing. Even at the low spots, when I despaired of it ever falling into place, I would remind myself that I was writing. It didn't solve the problems, but it was a nice thought to hold in my hands while I struggled.

I am so blessed to have a job in which I do a lot of writing. All the same, from mid-March on, and especially from March 25 on, my daily life really was All Grant All the Time.

Which means when I finally emerged from that long grant tunnel yesterday, I found out a lot of life - the rest of life - had passed right on by. Sam loves his job, everything in my seed pots is up except for a few peppers (just starting to come up) and the gourds (I had serious doubts about the viability of those seeds), the BIG May concert is bearing down upon the Symphony and this household, the vibraphone is nearing completion (and sounds gorgeous), I turned 54 last week (I did take the day off and we had a wonderful evening with Margo and Gerald, but I was back on the grant trail the next day as soon as we got home from Easter services), the daffodils are up, the forsythia is in bloom, it is time to mow the yard, and what happened to the household routine while I was off writing?

I dropped out of sight unless you happened to be at the grant meetings I was attending. I haven't read many blogs for three weeks. I missed my friends in Blogville. I missed my friends locally.

It is time to reconnect.

Last night, stopping at the store for a celebratory pint of ice cream (I shared, okay?), I ran into someone I have known since we were in Sunday school together many, many years ago. Somehow, in one of those little moments we all experience from time to time, we both got beyond the pleasantries and talked heart to heart for several minutes about a rough spot she is going through right now. The moment passed, we switched back to pleasantries, and then rushed off in our respective directions. As I walked out to my car, though, I found myself thinking fondly of this person's place in my past and our shared moments together. In that brief little grocery chat, we opened enough of a door to reconnect at some level beyond "hi how are you what's new gotta run."

For the last several weeks, I have been operating at that "hi how are you what's new gotta run" speed. I had to in order to get the grant done, but it never felt right. I said several times to Warren, at the end of a too long and too intense day, "I don't like living like this." I was disconnected from my life, from my husband, from my friends, from my world.

It is time to reconnect.

So I am. I went swimming this morning after dropping Sam at work. I have spent some time blissfully puttering around the house. I have been eying the seedlings; they'll get some more attention this weekend. I promised Warren I would come by his office this afternoon and give both him and the Symphony my time and efforts before heading off to pick up Sam. And I'm writing this post for my blog.

It's good to be back.