Land of Ashes

[Written Friday morning 8/17]

It’s cool this morning in Ashland – 70 dry degrees under the shade of the old ponderosa pines whose roots reach deep into the cheerfully burbling Lithia Creek. I’ve loved Lithia Park, and it’s eponymous creek, since I was a girl in the first flush of my coming of age (perhaps 15?), and thought the college boys here were very grown indeed. I fell head over heels in love in 1992 with the romantic lead of “As You Like It” (the ever dreamy Ted Deasy), and have returned often enough to watch him begin taking the elder’s parts, as I have begun paying for my own tickets. (It’s a sorrow to me that he is not here this season!)

Ashland has lived up to it’s name in this week, with the sun blood red at noon with the smoke from a hundred encircling fires. As the air thickens, the theater goers are shifted from the grand outdoor Elizabethan theater to the surprisingly nice for a high school Ashland high school theater. But you cannot watch the stars rise above the flags for comedy, tragedy and history from the high school. Walking down uncommonly empty streets, faces are obscured by masks. It’s been nearly a month of unhealthy air here, and the stitch-ladies have begun turning their handicraft to N95 masks. I see more and more of them that appear attractive, artistic… permanent. Even the bright waters of Lithia seems murky with ash and fire-trace.

We saw no plays here

But while the very air we breathe may be turning against us, the actual art of Ashland is as superb as I have ever seen. I’m extraordinarily fortunate in finding a mate who likes theater as much as I do (I swear I don’t drag him – I proposed we go backpacking). So in the four days we are here, we will be seeing seven plays. We’re through five of them on this cool Friday morning, and my belief in the importance of art to show what it is you would rather not see has been swollen, like my heart.

Sense & Sensibility
I’ve never been a great lover of the Austin era romances. I’ve read a few of them, and enjoyed them, but never with the passionate ferver others express. My favorite version of Sense and Sensibility was actually a sci-fi sendup when the unsuitability of the young ladies had to do with their telekenetic and other powers. But this play was masterfully frenetic. It was almost tiring to watch the energy and enthusiasms of the young ladies and young men and gossips – the still patience of that eldest Miss Dashwood stood in most abrupt counterpoint to the chaos around her. It was a costume drama and a continual joy to the eyes. And at the end, when all the wheel of fortune ends it’s turning for the afternoon, there were tears standing in our eyes.

Book of Will
This was our first shift from the grand Elizabethan theater to the tiled halls of Ashland High, but as soon as the actor took the long trumpet in hand to herald the coming play, I was drawn completely in. This may be one of the most loving plays I have ever seen – showing long and happy marriages. It was a story of how it came to be that we still have the words of the Bard, against all odds and habit of the era. It was a good reminder of how much we owe to our forebears for their preservation of what is good and lovely. It was also very much a story of loss, and of the meaning of life. Will himself was years dead at the time of the telling, and the King’s Men (who knew his words) were also dying. The characters wrestled with questions of living now versus creating legacy, of what is owed to the honored dead, and of how to claim the very value of our days, especially when those days grow scarcer. It’s hard to say, but this might be my favorite of the plays.

Snow in Midsummer
There’s nothing quite like a good ghost story, and this one was very fine. It was a very modern retelling of an ancient Chinese story. What would happen if the honorable dead had the ability to demand justice from those who have killed them, and those who benefited from that killing? It was a very keen play, cutting to the heart of expectations, first impressions, and questions of justice versus love. It also spoke to the great modern themes of the changing climate of the world, the inequality of resources and justice, and the Chinese practice of harvesting organs from executed criminals. This is the sort of story that stays with you, and haunts your quiet thoughts.

Love’s Labors Lost
After dining with a long-lost college friend, we once again negotiated the process of getting and claiming our tickets for the Elizabethan in the high school instead. It was easier once we remembered we had a car. I’m very fond of Shakespeare’s comedies. Love’s Labors Lost seemed to echo the last two plays, with it’s sudden turn towards sorrow which questions the meaning and worth of all the drollery that makes the early acts such a frolic. In this one, I particularly noticed the costumes, going from white innocent frills throught the red of charming, lustful deceipts to the black of full mourning. The play is both a laugh at and a lamentation for youth. How very very young and innocent those kings and princesses are in the beginning. How sorrowful it is to see such folly vanish as it’s brought of age – and yet how hopeful at the same time.

Manahatta
Thursday was our light day, with only one play (and that one only 90 minutes long!). But it was a remarkable 90 minutes. Our culture is full of the trope of cowboys and indians, the winning of the west, the conquering of savagery by civilization. But from the eyes of the conquered, killed and often-displaced the story looks very different. This play was a heart-piercing dual story of the theft of the homes and lives of the Lenape people to claim the island of Manahatta for the Dutch. The wall for which Wall Street was named was built to keep them from their own homes. The second layer of the story, seamlessly interwoven, tells the tale of a Lenape woman with the highest credentials returning to Wall Street as part of the derivatives group in Lehman brothers. We watch again, in eerie echoes, as home foreclosures chase out native folks from their homes as inexorably as did colonists a few centuries before. It was devastating. It is also strange to see presented as historic remembrance things that I easily remember as they were happening. I was no child in 2008, and I remember how it felt to wonder just how far the normal order of the world would slip (as I do now).

Before each performance, for the first time ever, the company has remembered that these theaters sit on grounds once belonging to the Shasta and Takelma people. I understood better why a company that has memorized the lines from this remarkable production would be conscience-bound to confess this.

The Way the Mountains Moved
Not every play can be the best you’ve ever seen, although the OSF sure tries. This one was well acted and well executed but perhaps overly ambitious. In telling too many stories, it failed to tell any enough. It threw together the wild mix of manifest destiny Utah with Mormons, escaped slaves, 19th century naturalists, Mexican war veterans, Native Americans and pioneers. I had high hopes, but this one was not my favorite.

Henry V
This is my favorite Shakespeare play, and this was a masterful performance. I’ve never seen a Henry so vulnerable and human. His night-before fire visits, when he talks about how the King is also just a man, really resonated with the sound of truth. It made his Crispin Crispian speech all the better, when you know that he’s fighting his own feelings, doubts and fears in order to make such a bold stand. I wish I’d gotten to see the full cycle of Hal plays with this lead actor – he was superb!

Taken all together, my heart, mind & conscience have been moved by my time here. We’ve been debating the role of art for a few hundred years now (if not longer). I find as most precious this kind of art – that makes me see things I cannot myself see from where I stand. It teaches me something of what I do not know. I have never found another place that does such art as well (or even nearly as well) as Ashland does it. I wish you could all be here, and watch these plays with me, and be moved.

Something I’ve never done before

The older you get, the fewer things you get to do for the first time. I wonder how much of the perception of the speed of life has to do with that diminution of novelty. I can see it in even the difference between walking a path for the first time, and walking back along it. Anyway, on Saturday I got to do something new.

On Saturday I learned that some friends were going to a paint and wine night and I managed to cadge an invite. Now, I was a band geek of the first water. When electives were coming around, there was absolutely no doubt which one I was going to sign up for. So I never did art in high school. Or college. Or, well, ever. In fact, my nascent art career was cut short with one of the more bitter regrets of my young life. I begged my parents for art lessons when I was about 9. I remember going to a stationer’s store (I’M SO OLD) and buying the pencils, the sharpener, the paper and the special eraser. I was out of my mind excited. The teenager who showed up was an excellent artist at the high school level. But I was so wound up and energetic that I was hard to teach. She got frustrated with me in that first lesson and never came back. I ended up having been taught one method of drawing fir trees, but with a far more useful life lesson: If you want to learn, you had better make teaching you be a pleasure to your teacher.

Painting with some friends – maybe next time we’ll do an all group outing!

My art skills completely stalled out at that level, and if you ask me to draw today, chances are excellent I’ll make a fir tree for you.

Intimidation factor: high

So when confronted with a blank canvas, I was unsure what the outcome might be. Complete humiliation seemed plausible. Fortunately, middle age also carries with it this glorious lack of caring about complete humiliation. I uncovered the paper plate with my paints. Our instructor was reassuringly clear. Plus, this was just the base layer. At this layer most of my mistakes would be covered later. I slapped on the paint with aplomb.

Base coat

Then things got more complicated. We had to make rocks! Worse yet, rocks that actually looked like rocks. Woe!

Rocks and hard to make clouds

Our last step was buildings. I have some regrets about the choices on the lights, but none about my lantern lit landing on the water, or the expressive stars I added.

I improved the clouds
My masterpiece

It was a really enjoyable experience. It required attention, but it was a different kind of attention than I’m used to having to expend. My hands and mind were busy, but it was rather restful to be busy with skills I knew I didn’t have on an outcome that didn’t need to make it past the garbage can on my porch. (Have no fear – Thane has claimed he wants it for his room so it’s not intended for the bin just yet.) I would totally do that again!

It’s amazing how slightly differently we can all interpret the same thing!

It takes my mind off the near-complete-loss of all plums currently bedeviling my poor tree. Next year…

On a sadder note

Sound the trumpet

Trumpet and reading
Trumpet and reading

Many of you know that the most important part of my life in junior high and high school was trumpet. One day early in sixth grade, in a wooden band room in a mountain town, most of the sixth graders in town lined up to try out and pick instruments. There was a guy from the band instrument company there with samples and paperwork. (I remember him distinctly – he’d lost his vocal cords and had a voice box which was both gross and fascinating to my young self.) My school was pre-feminist. There were still strong gender lines – for example the default schedule was by gender and put kids in either home economics or shop based on whether they were a girl or a boy. The gender lines held strong and true in band. Girls played flute, clarinet or maybe saxophone. Boys played trumpet, trombone, drums and maybe saxophone.

But I picked trumpet. It was likely – I can hardly remember – an iconoclastic move on my part. I wanted to be different. I did not want to conform to the strong expectations laid upon me. I probably also liked trumpet – I can’t remember? But my sister had played trombone so I couldn’t play that, but I wanted to play a brass instrumet. Trumpet it was.

A boy and his new trumpet. OMG.
Grey’s moment picking his trumpet

This was one of the most important decisions of my life. The boys made my life pure misery. I got back in the only way an undersized girl could – by kicking their rear ends in trumpet. I got invited to play in a small youth symphony (the school superintendents wife is an orchestra conductor, and their daughter who was like five years older than me drove me to the rehearsals an hour away). I loved it. I thrived on it. By the time I graduated I was playing in an excellent youth symphony (that produced many professional musicians among my friends). It was the great passion of my youth, and a kindling of life-long pleasure. I still play my trumpet, primarily at church these days.

My attempts to raise brilliantly musical children were not successful. Piano lessons were met with indifference. Guitar lessons led to some of our biggest blowouts. I knew that winds – introduced last in life due to the physical requirements of playing them – were my sons’ last chance to open the door I’d so enjoyed, but given our track record I tried to keep my expectations low.

The whole band thing was a complete pain to arrange. The band practice for the fourth graders is at 4 pm at the school. School gets out at 2:40. The absolute only way this could work was for us to arrange school afterschool on Mondays (the one day a week they have practice), so Grey’s week is now completely mixed for where he is when and we have two pickups this day. But by gum, I was going to give him every chance.

Grey's first day on trumpet.
Grey’s first day on trumpet.

He started really strongly. I was super pleased he picked trumpet because it was a place where I could really help him. He asked me to give him lessons, and when he did I gave him my complete 100% attention and praise for every piece of minor progress. I think it actually helped that I’m pretty good, since I could tease out the scraps of what he was doing right from the blatty noise of a kid learning trumpet.

After a few weeks, when he was doing really well, he started agitating for “his own” trumpet. I recalled that process from my own youth. I first rented a trumpet, then got a very cheap very bad trumpet from the Sears catalog – of all things. Then my parents bought me a good “starter” trumpet. Then (and I still don’t know how they managed to afford this) they bought me the slightly used silver Bach Stradivarius that is still one of my prized possessions.

I set him a goal. He’s excellent at pursuing goals. If he practiced 50 times, I’d buy him a trumpet. Thinking about Christmas which was about 6 weeks away, I added that if he practiced 30 times before Christmas that would count too. My hope was to get him in the habit of practicing, and to get him past the period where he couldn’t actually play anything with the motivation of this carrot. That second goal required him to practice all but about 5 days between the setting of it and Christmas.

Grey's practice log - he practiced 30 times in exactly one month.
Grey’s practice log – he practiced 30 times in exactly one month.

He practiced *every day*. Some days he practiced twice. (I didn’t set the bar too high for how long he would practice – even five minutes counted but practices had to be separated by time.) He got extremely good for a 10 year old who’s had the trumpet for two months. And last weekend I found myself at a local music store, proudly forking over the cash for the “good starter trumpet” variety of instrument.

Proud owner of a new trumpet
Proud owner of a new trumpet

I’m trying REALLY HARD not to put too much on this. But I’m incredibly proud of my son for what he’s done so far.

Here he is playing Jingle Bells.

A theme from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is his favorite piece to play.

Good King Wenceslas is a good addition to the young trumpter’s repertoire.

Six shall ye labor and on the seventh rest

Which of the 10 commandments do you break most? If heaven and hell are decided by how we adhere to the 10 commandments, I’m going to need a whole lot of grace for my complete failure to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for us, not us to keep the Sabbath… but the truth is I don’t keep it.

But today, well, I pretty much had to.

Mocksgiving was amazing. It was, I think, our biggest Mocksgiving ever. I believe over 30 grownups simultaneously sat to share a meal. The total attendance was something like 48. I had friends who labored intelligently, diligently and cheerfully in the kitchen to help set the meal. I had friends who did the same to make sure I didn’t wake to mounds of dirty dishes the day after. (Some of those were the same people. I really hope they, um, just like doing dishes? Yeah, I think I probably need to have them over for a dinner they don’t have to cook pretty soon!) My brother did an amazing job keeping the kids happy and engaged and quiescent. But I’m happy to report that the turkey was excellent, there was enough stuffing for even Mike, and all were sated with food and friendship. It had that ineffable Mocksgiving quality that makes it what it is. Also, I can sit 30+ people for dinner.

I did feel the shadow of the attacks in Paris. I do not forget that half of the Syrian people have been driven out of their homes – that bombings are frequent enough to blur together in the strife-torn middle east. But I think Paris hits close to home for those of us in the West because so many of us have been there, or it seems so familiar. We react more strongly the more we see danger threaten people who could be us. I wish I could think of a thing I could do other than pray for those who went out Friday night and will never come home again, or those whose homes are a continent behind them, or those who face the choice to join with evil or die. I’m pretty sure that making sterner lines between “them” and “us” will not make any of use safer. But, as so often before, I lack the imagination of spirit to see what I can do to influence that outcome.

My novel progresses. I’m at 17,000 words. I’ve managed to move forward to some plot points. (Although my plotting is rather mirroring my discovery process, in which the protagonist finds something cool on the internet – not sure that’s a page-turning technique there.) I managed to write 250 words yesterday, which is about 10% of what I should be writing a day, but 250 words on Mocksgiving day seems like rather an accomplishment.

One thing I like about Mocksgiving (and I like many – most of them people) is that I no longer feel resentful of the imposition of Christmas that seems to happen earlier and earlier. (I’d love to see the studies that show that people buy more when you hammer them with Christmas carols in 65 degree weather eight weeks before the high holy day…) But hey! I had my Christmas so bring on your tinsel, Madison Avenue!

Do you remember back when my posts used to have a central thesis I’d write about? Yeah, me too. I’m sure that will come back in December, when I’m not doing all the writing on the side. Right? Right.

So I made an offer to my Facebook friends. If you’re DYING to read my novel (you know, my unedited, stream-of-consciousness write-as-many-words-as-possible attempt) drop me a note with your email and I’ll share my document with you.

This feels so much like a letter, I am finding it hard to end without a proper closing.

I remain your faithful friend,

Brenda

The trumpet shall sound

I was strictly rationed on how many pictures I got during the rental.
I was strictly rationed on how many pictures I got during the rental.

In my imagined version of what it would be like to raise children, those children picked up where I had left off with music. They loved to sing before they could even talk. When I introduced early piano lessons, they spent hours dedicated to wringing skill out of their fingers. They practiced guitar until their fingers were red.

Those were not the children I got. They sing – but only when no one can hear. Practicing was a huge struggle when we tried it. They just weren’t ready.

In first grade, arguments about practicing guitar were frequent and unpleasant.
In first grade, arguments about practicing guitar were frequent and unpleasant.

Now with music, there are different entry points. The world class violinists start at 3 or 4. The pianists 5 or 6. Even Thane is probably too old to be world class in some instruments. But… a child is physically too small to play a brass or wind instrument until they’re around 10, which is perfect since that’s much closer to the age at which a (normal) kid is more ready to spend long term focus working on a remote goal. (Well, at least my kids.) So although I’ve watched that particular parental daydream disappear – along with any girl-daydream and my quiet dark-haired poet daydream – I prefer my actual real children over my daydreams.

But my parents thought I was not very musical after years of piano lessons in which I didn’t really focus or practice or excel. And then I hit trumpet and the world was a new and beautiful place and music took a central place in my life. So, there is hope.

And then, last Tuesday, a huge moment came. Instrument rental night. My last best hope for a child to follow in my musical footsteps.

A boy and his new trumpet. OMG.
A boy and his new trumpet. OMG.

Now, I tried really, really, really hard not to make this too big a deal for Grey. I casually asked if he wanted to do band. (Please note: band is at 4 pm on Monday afternoons. School gets out at 2:20. So I had to switch Grey’s afterschool to school afterschool instead of Y afterschool on Mondays to make this work. SO MANY LOGISTICS. What a terrible time for a working parent!) Then I lightly inquired if he’d thought about what instrument he wanted to play.

“I want to play trumpet!” – words every parent wants to hear.

When asked why, there were many answers. “It only has three buttons! It’s the easiest!” “I love how it sounds.” Then in a quiet, vulnerable moment… “Because I want you to be proud of me.”

Ah. How clearly our children see us. It breaks my heart a little that my son is searching for ways to win my approval, as though it is some elusive and difficult substance. But yet… he is right. I cannot stop my heart from glowing that he picked my instrument. He’s asked me to teach him, and begged me for lessons every night since. I am not sure I have ever seen him more excited than he was the night we went to get his instrument. “I’m not actually sure I’ve been more excited myself, mom.”

I hear him working his way through to “Hot Cross Buns”. I remember a little girl on her front porch, some 27 years ago, doing the same. And I can only hope that he has as much joy of his instrument as I had and still have of mine.

Welcome to brass, my son.

First trumpet lesson: posture and hands
First trumpet lesson: posture and hands

Enjoy some pictures of both King Richard’s Faire and rental night!