Oh, say can you see?

Pearl Harbor Day was yesterday. I remembered. And I didn’t fly the flag.

We found a flag holder screwed beside the front door when we moved into this house. We bought a flag, a deluxe, made-in-the-U.S.A. stars-and-stripes. As a Quaker, I chose not to repeat the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, which, when all is said and done, is merely a piece of cloth heavily weighted with symbolism. There are principles above ” my country right or wrong” and one sets those principles aside to pledge allegiance to the flag.

Are you a person who loves your homeland? The trees, the bird singing on the wing, the smell of the air? the swell of the hills and the blue mountains rising behind? the shush of surf? the racket of a city street? Any of these can call up home in the mind’s eye.

On the other hand, a nation state is a political construct.  As a powerful symbol, a flag may stand for both and be revered. But, under the same flag in a different year, ordinary citizens might fear the soldiers marching behind it. Any symbol, in the wrong hands, can be used to incite hate and violence.

Yesterday I didn’t hang our flag from the house not because I disrespect the servicemen and civilians who died when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. No, that wasn’t it. I didn’t hang the flag because I was briefly overwhelmed by the pattern of what we, as a nation, choose to remember and honor.

Our national holidays — no matter what the original intention in setting aside a particular day — seem to glorify our military and deify our veterans. The “Freedom isn’t free!” chant drowns out any nuance.

We are admonished to remember Pearl harbor. Shouldn’t decency call us to fly our flags half mast from government buildings all across our country on August 6?  That’s the day when many peace organizations and religious groups remember Hiroshima & Nagasaki.

We rightfully celebrate the birth of our nation on Independence Day. Maybe we should also recall the (according to some estimates) hundreds of thousands of people who cleared and worked the fields but died of contagious diseases before the Europeans moved in and took over? We celebrate Columbus Day but do we, as a people, recall the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee?

And while we’re at it, let’s revive the real meaning of Labor Day — to honor the struggles and celebrate the achievements of organized labor. Outlawing child labor, securing the right to organize, establishing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and more, were no mean feats and have saved countless lives. People died for these protections. “Freedom is not free.”

Labor Day might also be a day that we, as a nation, lay wreathes at the Tomb of the Unknown Worker in honor of exploited/enslaved labor, those buried beside the railroad tracks they built across the prairie or laid in unmarked graves beside the fields they tended. And those others who built our cities dug our canals, blasted tunnels for our roads, toiled from sun-up to sun-down huddled over sewing machines or looms. Juneteenth, which has been an official national holiday since 1997, could be celebrated by everyone, as it should be.

What about greeting cards for Jan. 31, the day the first Social Security check was issued in 1940? Or ritual toasts on June 29 in appreciation of the national highway system? or maybe toasts of clean, safe water on December 2 to the Environmental Protection Agency? “Freedom is not free!”

Let’s toss out the crass commercializing of every one of our holidays. (What kind of holiday do retail workers enjoy when Labor Day is yet another day of sales?)

When I was a child, we pinned simple red crepe paper poppies to our coats on November 11, and thought about all the young men slaughtered in that gruesome war, The War to End All Wars, World War I. They weren’t gods, those dead boys. They were people. We mourned.

We are a country ever yearning toward our ideals of our Declaration of Independence, a country still becoming. We are only ever momentarily the triumphant “Star Spangled Banner.” We are always “America the Beautiful.”

Must our national holidays be all bluster, war-mongering and mindless flag-waving? Will   our proud nation ever learn to symbolically bow her head and ritually acknowledge past failings? Can we, as a people, lift up our many civic acheivements in joy and celebration?

Until then, perhaps I need black streamers for my flag or a wreath of red poppies for my door.

 

 

3 Ways to Get Over It!

We all have out buttons that beg to be pushed. Yours may be different than mine but they are probably equally unimportant in the wider scheme of things. Unless you are an evil dictator with the power of life and death over your cowering subjects, history will remain unaffected by your flare-up when somebody slams a door.

These last few weeks, due to chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia, I’ve been mostly out of commission. I look normal enough, I guess, if you overlook my horizontal posture. When I do stand up I usually lean against something. Sitting? my elbows are propped on the table and my hands hold up my head. Flat or upright, my brains are mush.

With so little energy to draw on, you’d assume I’d just let little things pass me by — that any buttons I have are obviously wired to dead batteries. Go ahead, you might think. Use ‘you and me’ instead of ‘you and I’ as the subject of a verb. Insert random apostrophes. This poor woman may have that coveted* degree in English but she’s in no shape to react!

And you would be right! I am powerless in my own life. Go ahead and push my buttons. I can’t get it together to lecture you on your transgressions so rub it in my face.

Yes, life goes on even when I can’t take part. To fill the hours, I read ten novels this week — eight historical romances, one YA fantasy, and one literary novel (the least enjoyable). — while wonderful things happened all around me. [Editor’s note: The writer does, in fact, go places and do things — just not as many of either as she would like. She’s waving around the proverbial half-empty glass here and spilling a good bit of it in the process.] Real life — engaged, active, vibrant — passes me by. In the meantime, the garden is weedy, the bank balance is a mystery, and the refrigerator is bare.

But if you think a debilitating illness is guaranteed to make you a more patient person, forget it. Struggling with such a condition can bring you to temporary state of acceptance. You might, briefly, step outside the pain and experience yourself as clear water flowing over and around rocks in a dappled stream bed. But this state will not last. At least, it never does for me.

Little things still get me.

After Quaker meeting [Ed: See? she does go places.] another Friend and I were bemoaning how others had come into the meeting room before the hour and, even though some were already settled, they whispered and laughed and walked around greeting others. Why don’t they know that meeting for worship begins as we center, not by watching the hands of the clock? Both of us confessed our disappointment to hear any Friend substitute the word “consensus” for  the word”unity,” the end result of our Quaker process. And too many who should know better refer to our meetings as “silent” instead of  “waiting worship.”

How spiritual is it to get irritated by misunderstandings of spiritual practice?  But without understanding, can there be full appreciation?

While I was taking a stranger on a tour of our meeting house, she asked me, “What do Quakers believe?”  I began with “Quakers believe there is that of God in everyone, that we are all equal in the eyes of God. We believe in continuing revelation, that if God ever spoke he is still speaking.”

Afterwards, a Friend asked why I didn’t just recite SPICE — Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality? This never occurred to me. To me, the core of the Religious Society of Friends is how we arrive at what we believe. There is nothing simple about simplicity or peace or integrity or community or even equality. We have to know how to ask the right questions in the right spirit to put our beliefs into action. Quaker process is a gift to the world.

The irritation of a grain of sand can result in a pearl. Irritation, carefully examined, can guide us to the right questions. We can benefit when we allow ourselves to flow like water around the irritation, calmly taking it in. Quaker process is a way of setting aside ego and listening beyond words. It is not efficient. It’s painstaking and time consuming. To some of us of a certain temperament, it can be irritating. But that’s the price of unity.

Usually, though, there aren’t profound messages in the things that push our buttons. I get perturbed if I trip over my husbands size 13 boots or he doesn’t close a drawer all the way or forgets to turn out a light. He gets ticked if I run cold water in the sink when he’s washing dishes or I turn off a light he needs or I slam a door. We each try to avoid pushing each other’s buttons or over reacting when one of our own buttons gets pushed. That’s the price of getting along.

Some days, I watch myself getting ticked off about everything and snapping at everybody. This is a sign I’m falling into a bad place with the CFIDS/Fibromyalgia again. And then I have to spend most of the day apologizing. And that’s really irritating!

So the the heading of this piece is misleading. I don’t know 3 Ways To Get Over It — I don’t even know one. I get irritated by lots of things. I probably always will. Occasionally, my irritation is instructive. But most of the time, I just take it in stride and step over it.

How about you? How irritating is it that this piece contains no answers?

 

 

P.S. One suggestion: music. I’m listening to The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane.

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*Obvious example of irony

Atheism: the Faith of My Father

In meeting for worship, the question was asked: “What does it mean to have a personal relationship with the Lord?” A previous message had claimed this “personal relationship with the Lord” and offered a definition of God as “Love and Light, Good and Right, Wisdom, Knowledge and Compassion.”

I learned faith from my father, a birth-right Quaker and a devout atheist. Daddy was an equal-opportunity anti-God fanatic. With little provocation, he delivered passionate sermons aimed at converting believers to Reason and Logic. He was evangelical — a missionary among the washed hordes of Christians in semi-rural Ohio. Like all True Believers, my father suffered for his faith. In our little town, people like Daddy who openly, loudly — even brazenly — didn’t attend church were looked upon with suspicion, to say the least.

He tried to raise me as a Quaker without God and hundreds of miles from any Friends’ meeting house. Social justice, the equality of persons, the evils of war — he lectured me on these topics. Countless times, as the sole member of his congregation, I listened attentively as he thundered on in rolling tones about the curse of ignorance that breeds superstition, the hypocrisy of worshipping on cushioned pews beneath stained glass windows instead of feeding the hungry, the impossibility of the virgin birth and the resurrection, the contradictions of the bible, the pagan antecedents of Christian holidays, and so forth and so on, ad nauseum.

I soaked up his every word. I believed. God was an invention of men. Religion was anti-science. If something can’t be proved by scientific, objective measures, it doesn’t exist. Daddy’s worldview wove a thick cloak of superiority about him while others stood naked and exposed in their ignorance.

But now I’m a Quaker, and I consider myself Christian within that tradition.

I didn’t abandon the faith of my father overnight. Mine was a gradual turn about. Even while I was still enthralled by his pronouncements, I was reading heretic texts like The Sleeping Prophet and devouring “non-fiction” on mysteries like Big Foot and UFO’s.  (Decades later we moved to Virginia Beach and I came to know people who knew Edgar Cayce and offered more stories of his second sight.) My friends and I were fascinated with Ouija boards and ghosts.

Even in junior high, the idea of reincarnation appealed to me. The way Cayce explained it, reincarnation sounded fair, and we all want the world to be fair, right? Maybe my life this time is an easy one because I starved to death in the last one. Of course, reincarnation can be used to enforce a caste system and justify inequality. In that way, it’s no different than a religion to keep people under the thumb of the King or in the rifle-sight of a tribal chieftain because obedience and piety are rewarded in the after life so keep your mouth shut and do what you’re told.

Though I liked the idea of reincarnation, it wasn’t enough to undermine my faith in Fundamentalist Atheism. Even from where I stood — a place of relative privilege and comfort — it was obvious any God worth worshipping wouldn’t allow people to suffer like lots of them obviously were. If there was a God in charge of this world and all its hunger, sickness, and premature death, he wasn’t a god I wanted anything to do with anyway.

About mid-way through college, five months pregnant and not married (this was a big no-no back in 1970), I was sitting on my dorm bed at college idly considering a jump from the window and a plunge to the asphalt three stories below. (This sort of thinking I learned from my mother.) Then I heard that still small voice: You don’t have to do that. Things will be difficult for awhile but everything will be all right in the end.

I heard the voice. I never doubted the words. It was enough to keep me going. I didn’t bother to weigh the silent voice on any scientific scales. I just accepted it and moved on.

Three years later, I returned to campus with my daughter to finish my degree. And I met a really nice young man. And I heard that voice again: This is the man you are supposed to marry but you’ll never have any money.” This was an Oh Shit! moment for me, because, in my (still) atheist worldview, money was the only security. The more money the more security.

So I set aside my need for money and that kind of security and married that nice young man. We never were hungry or homeless but we had some lean years and some hard years. I never doubted that we were supposed to be together — I’d been told — and we came through those years a out on the other side.

But in spite of these and other mystical life-changing moments, abandoning the faith of my father was a gradual process. My husband had been raised in a strict Baptist Church and was in no hurry to ever join another one. Years went by and were we unchurched, but, soon after we moved to a town with a Quaker meeting, we began attending.

I suspect anyone who’s been gifted with trustworthy directions and guidance from a source that defies rational explanation longs for frequent communication from that source. In my life, that voice has been crucial and rare. The best substitute I’ve discovered is to fill my life with good people and learn from their examples. And in that little Quaker meeting we first joined, there were people well worth emulating.

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When I told my father I was attending a Friends meeting, his first question was “Race Street or Arch Street?” I assured him we’d joined a Hicksite congregation and he seemed, for an atheist, oddly satisfied. He took great pride in his Quaker forebears and cousins in spite of their irrational beliefs.

Once Daddy got over being pleased that I’d joined the Religious Society of Friends — that his daughter had come into the very fold he’d abandoned — he felt compelled to argue with me about the existence of God — God anywhere, in any form. Since you can’t prove God exists, Daddy argued, God does not exist.

[Oddly enough, I have a disease — CFIDS/ME — that cannot be confirmed with a laboratory test or x-ray. For years, doctors used that same argument against people like me: We can’t prove you’re sick so you are not sick. In spite of their sound reasoning, I am sick. Medical science is catching up with my experience.]

I came back at my father with arguments for the existence of music and love, neither of which have scientific explanations. (Or so I said at the time. I’m wouldn’t make such pronouncements today.)

My current and fluctuating understanding of God is whatever It Is that binds us, makes us human — like the force that holds bees to a hive, working together for the greater good. It’s hard for me to see any sense in altruism without God. If there’s no meaning beyond one’s own individual needs and pleasures, what’s wrong with doing whatever it takes to achieve whatever’s best for yourself? Ayn Rand, anyone?

Do I have a personal relationship with the Lord? Well, it’s an on-again, off-again kind of thing. I don’t always stay in touch. But here’s what faith means to me: an ability to accept uncertainly.

My father and other fundamentalist atheists I’ve met — the brand of atheist compelled to harangue us ignorant church-goers — have a great deal in common with religious fundamentalists: the drive to be RIGHT! The basic flaw in atheism is the claim of certainty. To me, agnosticism seems more consistent with reason.

The idea that something can only exist if human science confirms it’s existence is a strange one. It’s like claiming the Grand Canyon didn’t exist until Joseph Ives sent his Report upon the Colorado River of the West; Explored 1857 and 1858 to Washington, D.C.

This idea also overlooks the expansion of human knowledge, the way new discoveries overturn old understandings.

I can’t explain what I believe and I can’t justify it to a non-believer. That’s fine with me. I don’t care if I’m wrong and I can live with uncertainly.

Isn’t that part of what it is to be human?

 

 

 

Sparkling Shadows

We Quakers like to think things through. We use queries and testimonies to gently guide us, and we may use clearness committees to examine weighty decisions like marriage or a career change. After a few years of Quaker process, we may find certain phrases have taken up permanent residence in our brains.

So if, for example, one were tempted by a handsome Christmas catalogue from Goldspot.com, specifically the pages displaying the ink (I am a sucker for color swatches), one might consider this avarice in the Light of query #5: “Do you practice simplicity in speech, dress, and manner of living, avoiding wasteful consumption? Are you watchful that your possessions do not rule you?”

Since I already own a bottle of black Monteverde Ink that I have been quite happy with and may last me the rest of my life, and I only have two pens with refillable cartridges, strictly speaking I am not in need of any more ink. So perhaps purchasing more is “wasteful consumption.”

However, after sleeping on it, I began to see that colored ink could do things black ink just couldn’t do in quite the same way.

Who wouldn’t welcome a letter penned in violet ink? And wouldn’t it be splendid to address envelopes with a calligraphy pen filled with glittery grey ink?  And wouldn’t grey ink work well under vellum in a collage.  And it was just two bottles of ink.

[Honesty compels me to reveal here that I already have an entire room of art, crafts and sewing supplies.]

So, yes, I gave in to temptation in spite of the queries. I ordered the ink.

When the package from Goldspot arrived it was larger than I had expected. Inside, each bottle of ink was presented in its own box and each box was individually cushioned in its own bundle of bubblewrap. One box was sparsely illustrated with scattered cryptic img_9158sketches. The other box was black splashed with gold and silver. Just owning such clever packaging made me clever, too, right? (Such are the dangers of consumer culture. We identify with the products that call to us.)

So I filled my pens and sat down to answer letters.

I had seven letters from inmates to answer.

Here you may be wondering something like this: How did this woman come to be exchanging letters with seven prison inmates?

The first is a high-school friend of my son’s.  He was my “gateway drug,” you might say. His letters showed me something of what it is to be locked away from normal human society, to live under arbitrary rules, to be constantly on watch and watched.  The worst was, he wasn’t even safe inside. I don’t remember giving much thought to prisons before he was sent to one, any more than any other common garden-variety  knee-jerk liberal. Visiting our young friend at these places — he didn’t change his ways just because he was behind bars so he kept getting into trouble and getting transferred to more and more “secure” institutions — was awful. The search prior to visitation could be humiliating, depending on which guard was on duty. The clang of the locked gate behind you — the walk between steel mesh walls topped with razor wire — the constant surveillance in the visiting room — all underscored your powerlessness here. And that was just a visitor’s experience!

Alongside our testimonies and queries, we Friends are guided by certain parts of the Bible (like every religion I know anything about, we also pick and choose which portions of our holy texts appeal to us — though unlike some, we constantly reexamine how the text speaks to us today).  This from Matthew 25 remains clear: For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. ‘Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ 

I have my own physical challenges that severely limit my stamina and interfere with my ability to keep commitments. But letters? I can write letters, especially to someone willing to wait. And inmates? They are experts at waiting and any day a letter arrives is a good day. A letter is a kind of visit and it’s my small offering against the pain of the world.

So I did an on-line search for other inmates who write letters. That’s how I connected with an inmate in Texas. She has since been paroled and writes about the challenges of re-entry. Another pen-pal is a lifer in Pennsylvania. In past years, I sent Christmas cards to inmates using pre-printed address labels from  Virginia-CURE. A few of those men wrote back and we began corresponding. Another inmate wrote a letter to our meeting asking for help finding a job and farm work upon parole. I passed his plea on to another member and now he writes to both of us. (But he hasn’t been satisfied with our help because he’s still locked up. He was counting on us to convince the governor to commute his sentence. In our defense, we have made efforts to bring his case to the governor’s attention.)

Letters from inmates can be hard to read and harder to answer.

There are still people who believe prison is like a country club and better than a retirement home: free food, free clothes, free housing, free medical care, free college and HBO. Why don’t we kick out those criminals and move Grandma into her own cell?  I have never seen “Orange is the New Black,” but surely the show has disabused viewers of this notion that inmates have a cushy life and are just mooching off law-abiding taxpayers.

Depending where a prisoner is housed, he or she may be required to buy their own uniforms, shoes, socks, underwear, jackets, hygiene needs, stamps, paper, etc.  And they can only buy from the prison commissary at inflated commissary prices.

One man writes: I definitely need a television here because we are locked down in our cell most of the day. My old television ceased working a few months ago. Would it be too much to ask if you can contribute some money towards the price of the television. It is exactly $214.

Private companies make money on every bag of potato chips and pair of cotton briefs sold and the state gets a kickback. In Virginia, JPay even makes a profit on every phone call, every email, every video chat (and some prisons no longer allow in-person visits) and every music download from or to state inmates.

The letter writer missing his TV? I transferred $25 into his account. JPay charged me an additional $5.95 for the privilege.

Some prisons allow inmates to have magazine subscriptions or new paperbacks mailed directly from approved vendors. I pay for a sports magazine for one friend and I asked another if he would like any particular book. Amazon assures me that a new, paperback copy of Roget’s Thesaurus is on its way to him.

Prisoners themselves do a lot of the work of the prison and sometimes work for private companies “outside.” Slavery is still legal for prisoners. They get paid pennies per hour and may be disciplined if they refuse a job. They may be rewarded for good behavior with a good job and can lose it for bad behavior.

There may be no jobs available so if an inmate doesn’t have anyone on the outside to send him money he has nothing to do and no money for “extras” (indigent inmates are provided bare minimums). They may be in solitary for 23 out of 24 hours, trying to stay sane. (Here’s a link to an article sent to me by one man “in the shoe”, the man wanting money to buy a TV.)

So one of the reasons it’s hard to answer letters from prisoners is that once they get to know you, they may ask for things. And the longer they are in prison, the less likely they will still have friends and family alive on the outside.

  • I have been incarcerated for almost 36 years . . .
  • When I came to prison in 1983 . . .
  • I just turned 30 years old. I am a man now but I have been locked up since I was 17 and I don’t have any of the responsibilities of a grown man . . . prison infantilizes you.

All of my pen-pals desperately want to be freed.

What purpose is served by locking people up and throwing away the key?  It doesn’t make sense to warehouse such a great number of people for most of their lives. It’s a waste of money (unless you are JPay or the private prison industry) and it’s a loss to families and communities. [I freely concede that there are a few people– the worst of the worst, the criminally insane — who should never be let loose on society again.] Most people do change and do reform. We need a system that recognizes that.

Inmates tend to put a lot of thought into their letters. They deserve to be answered in kind.img_20161209_222816

So I wore myself out*, writing seven thoughtful, individual, multi-paged letters in one day. By hand. In deep violet ink. (We don’t want too blatant a nonconforming color or the prison censors might reject the letter.) I folded each letter into a Holiday card (generic greetings for the non-Christians) without glitter or layers to upset the aforementioned censors. And I addressed the envelopes with my inexpert calligraphy in Sparkling Shadows ink — a smoke color with subtle gold highlights that might make it past the censors (though at some prisons, the inmate only gets a Xerox copy of the envelope).

I don’t know if my pen-pals will notice the violet ink or even get to see the Sparkling Shadows ink. I don’t know if any of them will appreciate it if they do see it.

I saw it. It made me feel better.

In a world that can be overwhelming, there’s the small delight of colored ink.

 

 

*Not an exaggeration.

 

 

Keys and chords

When someone sees my piano for the first time, they usually say, “Oh! Do you play?” and I usually answer, “No. I practice.”

Once, during a visit, a friend watched me at the piano. “Are you having fun?” she asked me, skeptically. It didn’t look like it and it still doesn’t look like it, but yes, I am. The idea of one day being able to play music — which is so much more than just hitting the right notes — is enough to keep me going.

When I was growing up, I envied my classmates who took piano lessons. Kids who lived in normal homes (I naively believed there was such a thing) played piano. And there was even a piano, of sorts, in our home.  So I asked for lessons.

Other people had pretty little spinets in their houses. The piano at our house was an old upright, painted a flat black, with thumbtacks on the hammers. It lurked in the corner, waiting for those rare occasions when my Dad’s friends would get together at our house for a jam session. Daddy would dust off his stand-up bass* and his friend Bud would take his seat on the piano stool while Bottle Curtis moistened his clarinet reed between his lips. Someone might have a a trumpet, someone else a guitar, and someone, or two, sang. But usually the band played jazz down at 51 West Main Street at Bud’s bar,  Weber’s.

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 Weber’s bar was fashioned in Cincinnati and shipped

in parts to Shelby, Ohio, where it still serves the public.

 

Bud Weber’s own piano, another old upright, sat right inside the front door of his business, its back to the street. Bud used to joke that the piano had termites. Turned out, it did. The  sound board crumbled around the same time its owner was eaten away by drink. (Or that’s the way my father told it, anyway, but then, he never let the truth get in the way of a good story.)

Daddy grew up in Norristown, PA, with a grand piano in the living room. My aunt played and sang, but I never heard her. My Gram put on concerts for my brother and me, singing silly songs and rolling grapefruit up and down the keyboard to play accompaniment.  The last I knew of that once distinguished piano, it was dusty and neglected, the substantial front legs chewed by Winston, the English bulldog. My uncle — motto: Real musicians play by ear! –has a beautiful grand piano in his home now. He also has a bulldog. Smedley does not gnaw on the piano. In my parents’ home, our mutt Gigi never even tried to attack that old black upright.

My brother and I used to mess around on the piano but only when my father wasn’t home. We were always careful to allow him the undisturbed quiet he expected from us, even though, during a nap, his own snores would often wake him up.

I had a few informal lessons from a friend of my parents, but that didn’t last, so I made sporadic attempts to teach myself from the John Thompson’s Piano Book  I retained. I could hit the right notes, but I couldn’t get it to sound like music.  51mcwggmpel

When fifth grade band came around, my grandmother sent my uncle’s clarinet for me. Real effort was required to get a sound out of  this horn; it was much easier to blow through one of the plastic clarinets rented by the other girls (for some reason the clarinet section was always all female). But I persevered and was eventually rewarded with a rich, layered tone. By high school, I played well enough to perform at the state level in woodwind trios and quartets. When the parts wove together just so, I was lifted out of myself, above the mundane, into timeless delight.

Like my father and my uncle, my brother couldn’t read music. He played trumpet by memorizing fight songs for the marching band and spinning  Al Hirt records over and over until he could reproduce them note for note. Me? I was confined to the written music. It was drilled into me that my brother was the musician, not me. No one ever invited me to join a pick-up band and I wouldn’t have known what to do if they had.

To play clarinet takes a strong diaphragm and a firm embouchure. It requires daily practice. Once I left high school, I didn’t keep up with it.

When my first child was just starting grade school, a friend was moving far away, somewhere mountainous out west, and she gave us her piano. It wasn’t the first time my husband moved one of those heavy old uprights and — bless his heart — it surely wasn’t the last. (I have lost track of how many times he moved even that one piano.) When the piano tuner took a look at it, he told us it wasn’t worth fixing. Since we didn’t have the money to buy a piano, I told him: “It’s this piano or it’s no piano.” So he spent most of two days working on it. When he sat down to play it for the first time, he was thrilled. It had a beautiful, full-bodied tone.

My husband and I made sure our children had piano lessons if they wanted them and three of them did, but only our daughter stuck with it. One year for my Christmas present she performed Scott Joplin for me! Recently, she brought that same book with her when she visited and played a few of those lively tunes.

When she first started taking lessons, I was busy, busy, busy — producing her brothers, taking care of them, volunteering, writing, etc. I thought I had plenty of time to take lessons myself — later, when the boys were older and my life took on a more predictable routine.

But “yuppie flu” felled me before the youngest boy was even in kindergarten. I thought I was temporarily sidetracked, but that train will never run fast or reliably again.

So, no. I don’t play piano. But I’ve been practicing for several years now. My teacher would rather I played at recitals, but I don’t. And she’s been flexible when I cancel a lesson less than an hour before because I’m too dizzy to drive to her house or too brain-fogged to recognize the notes or figure out what to wear. And arthritis has interfered with my progress. Still, my fingers can now span an octave and my thumbs cooperate on scales. Of course, I can’t do this every day. Some days I can’t read the music. This morning, pain made it hard to sit up. Sometimes I practice throughout the day, in ten minute sets. Some days I can’t even do that much.

I had anticipated that practicing piano would be like an extended, focused meditation, an experience similar to what Margery Abbott describes in “Dispatches from a Week of Piano Practice” (in the September 2016 issue of Friends Journal). But M.A. plays. I practice. And much of my practice is the physical part: shoulders relaxed, elbows up, wrists loose, hands curled, etc.

I will never meet my uncle’s standards: I can’t improvise. And I may never reach my own standards. I have yet to play even the simplest assignment all the way through without a mistake. But I’m practicing more difficult compositions and, every once in a while, I’m rewarded with a few measures of real music and I’m lifted with delight.

 

 

*Daddy claimed  Bill Haley, of Bill Haley and the Comets, borrowed this bass to record  Rock Around the Clock, because Daddy’s bass had a superior sound which came across better in those early recording studios. But Daddy’s other stories had him making a total break with Bill Haley, maybe before this song was ever recorded.