And now for something totally different. I have a tendency to accumulate small and obscure interests. I don’t talk a lot about them, since I have long since learned that few people are interested in going in depth on things like Wagner’s Ring Cycle and it’s mythical connections to Tolkien. If you try, you can get me going on some of these at a party, when we have parties again.
Anyway, one of my small obsessions is solar phenomenon. At least, specific solar phenomenon. For the last five or so years I’ve been totally obsessed with the Carrington Event, a Coronal Mass Ejection at the beginning of the industrial age that lit up and partially destroyed the telegraph wires (as well as painting skies across the world with vibrant auroras). I sort of fail to understand why this isn’t a bigger deal. It’s one of the most likely civilization disrupting events (right next to, uh, pandemics). Events of that size hit earth every couple hundred years, depending on a solar cycle much more complex than I realized. (We’re in solar cycle 25 right now, although it seems clear there is also a meta-cycle that lasts longer than our scientific observations and is hard to map to any permanent stuff here on earth.)
Anyway, I decided this summer to dig deeper into the aurora and the coronal mass ejection (and also Northwest Lookout towers) and read this great book called “The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began” by Stuart Clark. Towards the end of it, after the unseemly death of the title character (Clark seemed to hate telling that part, but dutifully dished up the promised salaciousness), you get some lovelorn English gents wandering to Egypt with the expected malaria, ill health, and bad neighborliness. They go to investigate the Zodiacal light. Given my obsession with all the other weird phenomenon, I couldn’t believe I had missed one. The Zodiacal lights are a pyramid shaped column of light seen at dawn and dusk roughly between the tropics. And those ill-fated Englishmen (did they die of dysentery/malaria? I don’t recall, but it seems right) couldn’t figure it out. In fact, the mystery stretched down to my reading of the book.
There was a pyramid of light in the sky, and no one knew why.
Until last week.
We launched a probe, Juno, a decade ago. And with it’s vast solar panels, it discovered something in space – a vast section of dust fiercely pinged and pitted the light-catchers. And that dust lined up perfectly with both the trajectory of Mars, and the Zodiacal lights. That pillar in the sky? Mars dust. So cool. Of course, in the manner of all scientific discoveries the answer to one question simply raises another: how did all that dust get into space in the first place? Interesting, but not quite as cool as the mysterious pillar of light in the sky.
Anyway, Zodiacal light has been on my mind this week, so I decided to make this, ahem, artist’s rendition of it. It’s SO CLOSE to what I wanted, without quite being perfect. Ah, the life of a person attempting to make art. Anyway, this picture is definitely an exaggeration. But I got these pearlescent watercolors, and they seemed just right for this dim and misty light. And pyramids are fun. If I’d had skills I would’ve added a camel. But I don’t have skills. I did add two zodiacal signs to either side of the pillar – can you spot or identify them?
If you follow me at all on social media, you know that I’ve fallen hard for watercolors. I’m posting pictures several times a week: some I’m proud of and some I’m frustrated by. I dream about watercolors, when I am not having that dream where you go to a party and realize halfway through that no one is wearing masks. My art adventure started in July with basic of learning how to draw, and then in September I tried a watercolor of White Lake. I’m saving the before/after until I’ve been doing this for a year, assuming I’m still interested this summer. But I’ve made a lot of progress.
I’ve been waiting for two weeks breathlessly for a shipment from an art store. (Shockingly Amazon isn’t a good source for the stuff I’m trying to buy.) I’ve been whining a lot about how it’s taken TWO WEEKS to get me these paints. I, unlike most Americans, like STUFF. When I was a kid, the best part of going to school was that sweet, sweet 64 crayon box with all the sharp, unblemished colors. I’m not alone in having learned the names of every crayon Crayola produced for years. But my art education never advanced past the Crayola and Coloring phase, although my love for colors shows in my extensive pen selection.
For years, the closest I’ve come to artistic expression has been stamping cards. This is also a pleasure with color and paper – the sharpness of a crease, the perfect match of pattern, image and words. My favorite was always coloring in the stain glass window stamps with watercolor pencils – a bare step above coloring book and crayola. But with the water colors, all the joy of the 64 box has come flooding back, but with even more complex and multilayered joys.
One of the first books I read advised me to buy about 8 colors of paint. So I went to Michael’s and bought 8 tubes of cheap student’s paint (appropriate, given my skill level). The book had instructions on how to mix the colors to make other colors, but neglected to understand just how inexperienced a student might be. I struggled mightily squeezing out gobs of paint trying to get proportions right and cleaning huge amounts of paint off my little plastic palette after every picture. It felt… wrong and wasteful. Because it was wrong and wasteful.
I’ve been doing a lot of classes from a teacher online, and my new strategy has been to have blick.com up for the materials section of every class and buy everything I don’t already have. NORMALLY they’re here by the next weekend’s painting time. I’ve learned quite a bit about the tools and my preferences. For example, the right brush is absolutely transformational – at least at my skill level. I adore indigo with a deep and enduring passion, but cerulean is just meh. And it’s not just the one color, it’s the colors as you move from pure paint to nearly-water with the same paint. It’s the richness of the paint, and how the paint loves the water. Whether it longs for or disdains the paper. Is it smooth? Is is translucent? Does it haunt your dreams? But it’s hard to guess by paint names. I mean, cerulean is a great color name. Indigo is boringer. But I love indigo so much.
So this last order I got a dot sheet, which allows you to paint from a tiny dot of watercolor all 109 colors that Winsor & Newton make. 109 times you introduce the paint to the water, and share both with the paper. It’s a deeply contemplative activity (how can a person be bad at painting swatches? But yet I am.) It took me almost two quiet hours. And in that time I delved into a world previously unseen to me. Each color is coded with the permanence, series number, staining, granulation, transparency and light-fastness. These are realms I have not considered.
As the time spread like water on the paper, I also started contemplating the color names – so different from their Crayola predecessors. I think of myself as having a pretty good vocabulary, but have never heard of perylene or quinacridone or gamboge or indanthrene. Mysterious patterns lay themselves out: there are cadmiums of every color, and then a non-cadmium option. Why? What makes the cadmiums both so prized and so flawed that they cannot be left out but also need some alternative? What does it mean that there is one Winsor in every color. Does that harken to the manufacturer? Does it mean the base color, like a box of 8 crayons? Then we go a step farther. One of the colors is caput mortuum violet. I know that once they made a paint called mummy brown, made of mummies. Is this … latin for mummy brown? There is a tale to this color, likely over a century old. And every color in this swatch. And then there is also the science to it. Intrigued, I looked it up and caput mortuum is made from hematite and the name stretches further back than the 19th century to the alchemical experiments of the enlightenment and yes. Is related to mummy brown.
I stand on the banks of the river of my ignorance and am only now seeing just how deep and wide those waters run. Truly, I have known nothing and come to this as a babe. It’s been so long since I have approached something so innocently. I mean, this is just paint colors that have my heart running fast with excitement tonight. There are other paint manufacturers, who have other storied colors. There are other kinds of watercolors, like the unpronounceable and unspellable gouache. There are brushes. I know they matter, but I do not know what they MEAN. The papers, sold with so many languages on their covers, hint at sacred mysteries like cold pressing and rough grain. (Are these mutually exclusive? How do they change the dance with the paints and the brush?) There are techniques, and trick and things everyone knows (did Picasso have one shade of blue he used in his blue period?). There’s the difference between pigment and hue. There’s how to see, and how to communicate what you see, and which tools you need to pick for what you’re trying to do. And that’s before we get to acrylics or oils.
In this pandemic time, I feel like all my horizons are room-sized: small and constrained and maybe just a little worn. Watching this world of painting unfold in my own mind is like braving a winter hike to stand on a summit and gaze beyond purpling horizons lined with mountains. When I first started hiking, those mountains were unnamed and undifferentiated too. And now I know them with the intimacy born of sweat and suffering.
There is no telling how long this phase of exploration lasts. Do I quit when progress is no longer immediate? Is my time swallowed by the return of the world? Does it lose its charm? Do I develop a near-fatal allergy to cadmium? Even here I have no path, and simply walk ahead, seeing what vistas may yet await me the next time I pick up a brush.
It’s hard to move as fast as the internet. For a glorious few days last week, the internet was taken by storm by a revival of sea shanties and the subsequent public bemusement and pedantic corrections (eg. the Wellerman isn’t a shanty per se because it’s not intended as a work song). As I listened to the familiar lines, I was full of various and conflicting emotions. My first one was a prideful possessiveness: here were all these “Leave Her Johnny Leave Her”-come-latelies. Did they even Stan Rogers? But then I realized that was the absolute worst, and not who I wanted to be. What I want is for everyone to enjoy these great old songs like I do, and for people to discover and recover just how much fun it is to sing singable songs: alone, in the car, on Tik-Tok and some day (God willing) together again.
Monday is Robert Burns birthday. In other years, that would mean tonight would be spent in my kilt and tam, dragging my plaid-covered Scottish song book and preparing to endite poetry memorized 30 years ago, when memorization came easily. We’d usually start the night with Burns (“My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” and “Address to a Haggis”) before going to vaguely Celtic (“The Parting Glass” and “Early One Morning”) and then moving on to whatever we could sing or recite (a capella renditions of “Some Nights” by Fun). But the absolute highlight of the night, often sung two or three times (which I also snuck into my host-friends wedding) was “Barrett’s Privateers“. Not a shanty, but a sea song like Wellerman – sung by the same dude. This is also one of the few songs my sons have learned to sing.
The great joy of the singalong is the verse/chorus format. The more interplay there is between them, the more the crowd can join in after the first round or two. Barrett’s Privateers is particularly fun because there is a lot of interjection and plenty of verses. Plus fewer things are more cathartic than belting out “God damn them all, I was told…..!!!” at the top of your voice.
So in case you would like to join in the sea shanty*, fun to sing along songs, here are a few of my favorites:
1) Barrett’s Privateers: Stan Rogers
The very best of the singalongs for large, rowdy groups. Try to have at least one person who has the verses written out for a call and response. And never look at a bowl of eggs the same way again. Just what ARE the staggers and jags?
2) Mary Ellen Carter: Stan Rogers
On the same album, this song about the resurrection of of a sunken ship, given up on by the owners. It’s a triumph of the little guy over the heedless, soulless bosses, and the relationship between a worker and the tools, which is so much more than a simple cost benefit. To my deep surprise, this song was one my pastor chose to have sung at his retirement celebration.
3) The Wild Rover: The High Kings
There are a bunch of good version of this song, but I like the harmonies on the High Kings version. The funnest part is by far the clap in the chorus. Makes you feel like you’re part of the in-crew when you can totally nail the claps, and gives you a chance to good naturedly laugh at the new person who adds the extra clap!
4) The Scotsman: Seamus Kennedy
Another classic with many versions. It’s a tremendous accomplishment to roll off a ringdingdiddlio or two. This version is nice and clear so you can hear exactly what he’s saying, which was incredibly scandalous to 12 year old Brenda when I first heard it at a party after the Highland Games sung by a man named Sterling.
5) The Tarriers Song: Chad Mitchell Trio
Another fun, fast chorus on this one, with gorgeous three part harmony by the Chad Mitchell Trio. Like so many of the songs in this genre, it makes you grateful for a desk job. It’s short, but a fun chorus.
6) Greenback Dollar: Kingston Trio
In the version of this song we had on tape when I was a girl, they’d only strum on the word “damn”. I didn’t discover what I was missing until we acquired a CD version, and was appropriately scandalized by the language. I apparently spent a good amount of time as a girl being scandalized.
7) Long Black Veil: Columbia Country Classics Volume 3
This entire album is a freaking national treasure, and memorization of all the songs should be mandatory for high school graduation. Also, I only figured out last year that Lefty sold out Pancho, and I’m starting to have doubts about Carmela. This is a great song for later at night, when you’re feeling maudlin and sentimental.
8) The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: Gordon Lightfoot
This one has no chorus, and is more the kind of song you should memorize (even if you can’t sing a lick) in order to impress everyone with your authentic credentials. This is an excellent choice for someone who can’t sing to sing, since it has like a 5 note range and super simple melody. The strength is the lyrics.
9) The Downeaster Alexa: Billy Joel
Required singing for any beachside fire-pit sing-along from New London to Newburyport. Billy Joel has a straight-up fishing song, tinged with the grit of New Jersey and the smell of diesel. For contemplation: does he die in this song?
10) Hard Times Come Again No More
Another song sung by so many, this is a great theme for all of us as we persist through these dark days, held hard by pandemic in the right hand and squeezed by the icy grip of winter in the left. We can all sing together on the chorus “Hard Time Come Again No More” and get misty-eyed at the plaintive hope in this song.
‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many a days you have lingered all around my cabin door
Oh, hard times, come again no more
So there you have it. When we get together again, let’s sing these songs together. I’ll take the verses – join me for the chorus.
And while we’re on the topic, ahead of any future improbable resurrections of unlikely music, I’ve also long been a huge fan of:
Opera, especially Wagnerian opera
1970s folks rock with electric background (see also: Maddy Prior & Steeleye Span)
All the great folk trios of the 60s
Early music, inclusive, but especially focused on motets and madrigals, the works of Giovanni Gabrieli, and the repertoire of the pifarri.
Old school hymns
*None of them are actually sea shanties. Pedantry isn’t the point.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
So what’s new with you lately? Have you seen any art? Spent any glorious spring days outside? Read any good books? Tell me!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then things got more complicated. We had to make rocks! Worse yet, rocks that actually looked like rocks. Woe!
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.
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 takes my mind off the near-complete-loss of all plums currently bedeviling my poor tree. Next year…
I’ve always admired those people who seem to know exactly who they and their families are right from the get-go. I’ve discovered that my family identity isn’t a matter just of me deciding what it is, but more of discovery. For example, are we roller coaster people? Do we like roadtrips? When traveling, do we want a night to dress up fancy? Do the kids like museums as much as their parents do?
That latter point is one of great interest to me. The kids are approaching the peak age for really cool travel opportunities – able to keep up with the grownups and still interested in doing so. I’d really like to take them to see some of the great sights of the world in the next decade or so. (Yikes! Grey will be graduating from college in just over a decade!!!) But the question “are we museum people” must be answered – affirmatively – before I’ll do such a thing.
And so we snuck away for a week in DC this Thanksgiving.
We took the train to our nation’s capital. I drove five years ago, and it was a long drive. (I got my first ever speeding ticket that trip!) Plus, parking was an expensive problem in the city. It wasn’t useful to have a car. Air travel is necessary most of the time, but it’s not an enjoyable way to travel. In a train, there’s enough room to move around, but you don’t have to drive. Perfect.
The kids were so excited, I’m pretty sure they were expecting the Hogwarts or Orient Express – not the Amtrak Regional.
We stayed at the Embassy Suites. I’ve stayed there for business, and thought that it would be perfect with both the living and sleeping areas well separated. We could stay up after the kids went to bed, and there was room to hang out. It worked perfectly. Everyone brought their screens this trip (we all enjoy video games!). There was room enough for all of them – plus a table big enough for puzzles! There was a pool and a hot tub, and a tiny kitchenette good enough for heating and cooling things. It was pretty perfect!
On our trip we saw the Spy Museum (our favorite) and we walked the Mall. We spent Thanksgiving at the National Museum of the American Indian where we had a great native lunch for our main Thanksgiving meal. (The museum itself was not massively impressive, although I loved the native dancers!) We also snuck over to the Air and Space Museum while the crowds were low. We did the Museum of Natural History, watched Moana in the theaters (very fun!). We closed up our trip with a lovely walk to the Archives, where we saw the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
We played a lot of video games, too. And went swimming. And played Pokemon Go. And read books. And slept in. It was awesome.
My playlist has kept pointing me to a particular song in the last few days. It’s the Mitchell Trio’s “Phoenix Bird“. I went to go look it up to see what history (and Youtube) had to say about it. I found… absolutely nothing. Not a single Youtube video exists of it. You can’t find it on Amazon, or Google music. It’s lost. There’s no tale of the context or history. I can only tell you what the words say.
But I’m finding it meaningful lately. The Mitchell Trio were social justice warriors fifty years ago, the last time we seriously fought the fight between those who think some people are worth less than others, and those who believe all people are created equal. Their other songs ranged from tongue in cheek to weep-worthy. (See In the Summer of His Years for that.) The Phoenix Bird talks about fighting this good fight again and again. It reminds me that brave people paid prices in blood for making courageous stands against bigotry. These singers are folk of their era, so they talk about “men”, and how men will continue to arise as needed to fight for freedom. But the call goes out to all of us.
I’m not sure it’s entirely encouraging, this cyclical fight that we have fought over generations since we first kidnapped and enslaved and forever exiled from their homes entire nations of people. But I am encouraged to arise and fight – for freedom.
Phoenix Bird Mitchell Trio – from “The Violets of Dawn”
The story’s told
Of the days of old,
And the fabled bird, the phoenix.
The bird was killed,
And its wings were stilled
In a fire that burned with fury.
The flames grew cold
And then bird of gold
Then arose from the burned out ashes –
Rose to the sky,
There to circle high
Forever and ever after.
So the story’s told
Of those days of old
And that fabled bird, the phoenix.
And now once again,
Oh yes once again,
Once again that fabled story.
For freedom’s pride
Men are crucified
On a burning cross of hatred.
The flames may kill
Yet more men will arise! Arise!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.