Though much is taken, much abides

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

I was running when my watch buzzed with a message from my brother, “Y’all seeing the fire at Notre Dame?”. At first I thought of the Fighting Irish. But the link, which I did not stop my pace to read, was from the BBC in Europe. So the other Notre Dame. I’ve been heart-sore lately.Good exercise on a day when the world was contemplating renouncing the despair of winter for the hopeful enthusiasm of spring was meant to be a brief panacea. I tried to put the fire out of mind (hoping it was minor) and focus on the daffodils.

Running through the well-kept houses and lawns of wealthy Winchester, I reminded myself how amazing our civilization is. It is so much easier to destroy than build. But there is so much more built than not. What a great weight of effort lay behind every vista. And to the pounding rhythm of my slow pace, the words came back to me: Though much is taken, much abides

I find myself greatly consoled by remembered poetry. You’d think that this would mean I spend more time reading and memorizing poetry, but humans are not so sensible. We do not always invest in the things that offer us the greatest returns. We do not avoid the things that bring us harm. But this poem is not one I’ve read. It is, instead, a poem that a friend has memorized. I remember one bright night, when we were all younger than we are now, when we went together to see a play – a musical. We all agreed that it was quite possibly the worst performance any of us had ever seen. But walking back together through the streets of Boston, through swirling mist and halogen light, he recited all of Ulysses to the city sky. I’ve likely heard him say this poem 20 times in our years of friendship. So it is unsurprising for me to hear it in his voice. My friend’s voice assures me, much abides.

When I returned from my run and saw the pictures of the flames, I thought nothing could survive. What was built over centuries and endured for longer centuries would be wiped out in the slow course of my 5k jog. I was comforted only by the memory of that poetry. “Much abides” I reminded myself. And indeed, from the implausible wall of flames much more was recovered – largely because of human planning, care and expertise – than I dared hope for. The windows remain. The bees remain. The gothic walls and buttresses were designed independent of the roof, so the one could fall while the others held. I read an amazing response (which I cannot now find) by a medievalist who long studied the cathedral at Reims. The scholar talked with great hope about how the Medieval architects had learned so much (from hard experience) about how cathedrals burned that they had built new ones to withstand conflagration. The churches were designed to burn, but yet abide. And looking at what remains in the rubble in Paris, that seems true. How clever we are, we humans, when we put our minds to resilience and preservation. How foresightful we can be, and have been. Much abides.

Today, as I write, it is Holy Saturday. Last night, I went to Good Friday services – my favorite of the year. There’s no sugar coating harsh truths on Friday night. We put ourselves in the place of the false accusers, the cowardly arresters, the sleepy and scared friends who fail at the first test. We speak of beatings and mockery and spears and nails in the flesh. We listen to a dying man make fun of another dying man. There’s no place on Good Friday for looking away or softening. I think it’s no coincidence that rarely are children present that night. (Although I was very, very glad that my youngest son joined me, for the first time. I’m not sure my children will be able to understand my faith if they never worship with me on Good Friday.) On this Friday night – and on the long Saturday that follows – we live in a reality where God himself has died and we cannot see how anything can ever be okay again. Hope is lost, and all that remains is cleaning up and moving on.

Of course, there’s always the rest of that story. I usually practice my Easter hymns on Good Friday (which feels like cheating, but practice you must!) Beyond hope, hope arrives. There is redemption for the failed and weak. There is forgiveness. Although there is also real loss – Judas is never forgiven. I sometimes wonder if he would have been, if he’d chosen repentance over despair.

As we look to rebuild Notre Dame, and the black southern churches destroyed by a hateful arsonist, I am reminded of another phrase caught in my mind lately, from Isaiah:

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Isaiah 58:12

As I looked for the right words to close my thoughts, my pastor posted a poem by her favorite poet, whose title caught my eye. I leave you friends, with a new poem. May it be a consolation. For much abides.

What Abides, What Returns

Readying for Spring

March is a cruel month in New England. It is the time of dirty snow, when winter is old and grey and has entirely worn out it’s welcome, but clings to our shaded areas with a stubborn tenacity. Even today, the second nearly-70 degree spring day this weekend, I gaze over at my nearly-budding plum tree and see a malicious pile of snow in the corner.

But still – the fighter jets just flew past in tight formation, rumbling against blue-and-white sky, readying for the opening day in Fenway Park. The daffodils and hyacinths have pushed past winter’s hoar and into a friendlier light. The forsythias are golden in longer, stronger light and the spring peepers have begun a cacophony as loud as any fighter jet. Not even March can hold on forever.

I pruned the plum tree yesterday. That’s such hard work. You know you have to cut it down, for it’s own good. But you don’t want to. You’ve been cheering for every branch. I severely hacked back one of the branches that overhung the stairs (although I fear it’s going to inspire riotous new growth). There were also two fungally infected spots – one of which was a minor branch and one which was a medium one. I made more cuts based on health and my convenience than based on a proper pruning. But there are a good many incipient blossoms, and this year I have the fertilizer stakes in. I will ensure it gets well watered (I think my biggest mistake from last year). This year, you just watch, will be the year of plum jam.

I feel more than a touch repetitive when I tell you that life has been busy. On the spider-plot of the areas in which my life is usually busy, right now it’s dominated by work – of which there is much, and what I’m doing requires tremendous energy and leaves me tired at the cessation of my labors. I’ve been having headaches often lately. I think I may have cracked that one, though. I had a cold and sinus involvement which led to me taking a lot of cold medicine that included Tylenol. (Transcontinental flights with colds = All The Meds.) Then I kept getting headaches (and taking Tylenol) sometimes even from the moment I got up. I read through the internets (I was pretty sure it wasn’t one of the more serious causes) and discovered the concept of a rebound headache. I lowered my coffee, stopped taking all pain meds despite pounding headaches, and tried to get a bit more exercise. And it seems to have worked! No headaches for a week now!


Spring’s most perfect day

In other news, Grey has signed up for travel soccer. He had a great season doing indoor soccer this winter, during which time he enjoyed playing with his teammates, brought his skills up to a new level, got in good shape, and lost pretty much every single game. Builds character. For those of you who are not soccer moms, the hierarchy of soccer excellence goes like this:

Town soccer: 1 practice, 1 game a week. Entirely for fun. Don’t have to travel anywhere. Low pressure.
Travel soccer: 2 practices, 1 game a week. Have to do tryouts to get in. Increasingly competitive based on which team you make.
Club soccer: Soccer is now your life.

We’ve always been in the Town Soccer zone, and our sons have shown no interest in travel – until now. I often miss Grey’s games, but I got to go see him this Saturday on Spring’s most glorious day. I loved watching him run – the way his long legs effortlessly ate up the field as he moved. I loved watching him attack the ball, and how he’d position himself on the field, constantly adjusting to where the ball and other players were. He looked very right and in his element out there, which is not what I had expected based on his early years playing.

Does anyone with a background in physics know what happened next?

But we just added together 1 & 2 (it’s an and, not an or). So for the remainder of the year he’ll be playing games both days of the weekend, and will have three practices a week.


Yesterday, Facebook showed me an “On this day” update from a year ago. This was when we started the demolition for our attic project. Every night when I get to go up to that beautiful, bright, clean, airy space I can’t believe my good fortune. I think it will take a long time for it to get old.

Dare I say my favorite spot?

We went up to Conway in January, and spent some time looking at art galleries with an eye to the perfect pieces for our pristinely white walls. We found one superb piece that I enjoy every time I see it. It’s this beautiful, very New England scene (very wintery, really). It’s this lovely circle picture, done with photosensitive paper. It seems like a real place, lovingly remembered.

I especially love the stars

So what’s new with you lately? Have you seen any art? Spent any glorious spring days outside? Read any good books? Tell me!

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.