Author Archive

Joy in Music

“You’re not paying attention!”

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He had jumped from the piano bench accentuating the not with a pounding of the final chord and pointed his finger directly toward me. I had sung through a rest. The jolly good fortune of being five foot two and singing alto had placed me in the front row and with cameras and tape rolling, mine had been the lone voice carrying a single tone while fifty other voices had remained silent.  I thought myself wonderfully gifted to be in the church choir. 


A simple feeling of immense pride and we all know what comes as a direct result of pride.  My face radiated immediate warmth, my ears rung and my adolescent ego struggled to hold back the tears. We were spending another Saturday afternoon at the television studio, taping the musical numbers that would accompany our church program.  In my memory, it was very much a striving for perfection, a pristine line up of shiny satin robes edged in gold, smartly stopping at the edge of dutifully lined up feet.  There was little room for error.  In fact, there seemed little room for joy.  The older women brought bags of cosmetics and cans of hair spray, changes of clothing and were more than happy to donate their weekend to the endeavor that began early in the morning and lasted late into the afternoon.  That one rest changed the way I participated from that point on and it was only for a short time that I dutifully lined up for much of anything. Perhaps not the pivotal drama I remember, but
singing for me was all about prescription and following and being like everybody else.  The notes on the page were only a guideline.

 

But there IS joy in music. We humans do not put the joy IN music. It is there whether we participate or not. The irony being, we can take a lot of joy out of music, whether it be by order or prescription, or by the sheer pleasure of bending and blending tones with rhythm, words and phrases, stops and starts.  Or even a little rain.

 

 

 

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LONE DOG

Lone Dog

Irene Rutherford Mcleod (1891 – 1968)

I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog and lone;

I’m a rough dog, a tough dog, hunting on my own.

I’m a bad dog, a mad dog,  teasing silly sheep.

I love to sit and bay the moon to keep fat souls from sleep.

I’ll never be a lap dog, licking dirty feet.

A sleek dog, a meek dog, cringing for my meat.

Not for me the fireside, a well filled plate.

But shut door and sharp stone and cuff and kick and hate.

Not for me the other dogs, running by my side.

Some have run a short while, but none of them would bide;

O mine is still the lone trail, the hard trail, the best.

Wide wind and wild stars and the hunger of the quest.

Abou Ben Adhem

James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859)

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Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)

Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,

And saw, within the moonlight in his room,

Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,

An angel writing in a book of gold:

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,

And to the presence in the room he said,

“What writest thou?” The vision raised its head,

And with a look made of all sweet accord,

answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”

“And is mine one?” said Abou, “Nay, not so.”

Replied the angel.  Abou spoke more low,

But cheerily still; and said “I pray thee, then,

write me as one who loves his fellow-men.”

The angel wrote, and vanished.  The next night

It came again with a great wakening light,

And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,

And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest!

 

 

 

The Mask I Make

It was something I knew nothing about. That’s a beginning.  I have had the good fortune to be placed in circumstance where status means little and privilege is a shared experience of a community of women in a transformational environment. This would describe the mask making workshop I attended at the local multicultural center.


The tables had been placed in the center of the large workroom and around the periphery of the room there were craft stations that included glue guns, extension cords, feathers, beads, paint and brushes, an assortment of buttons and shiny things, colored wire, brightly fashioned yarns, and a myriad of other crafty things that would satisfy even the most critical of crows. There was somewhere between fifteen and twenty women seated watching as our fearless leader introduced herself and asked us to think about our own definition of a mask. What is the mask’s purpose? When do we choose to wear a mask and why? What does our mask say about us? Are we able to take our mask off?


I knew none of the other women, for quite a few English was not their first language. I met Lois when I offered to her the seat beside me. Lois had the physique I remember my grandmother having, an ample bosom without a clear distinction between chest and waist. Her hair gray at the roots, her glasses frequently pushed up from the end of her nose. She fretted to me about her current predicament, one in which she had been laid off from a job she had held for twenty nine years and as a result had joined a local empowerment program for women. She had only attended the program for two weeks when her former employer had offered her work. She was fearful to leave the program; fearful to refuse the work. She was simply fearful. Our instructor demonstrated the mask technique, calling for a volunteer she seated her in a chair and proceeded to apply Vaseline to her face, outlining her hair, protecting her lips and eyebrows from the adhesive quality of the plaster that would form the shape of her face. Lois was worried; this might be more than she could endure. “I’m rather claustrophobic” she confessed. “When I have an MRI, the space is so close, they talk to me and that helps, but I might not be very good with having my face covered.” I attempted to assure her. It was all right, I would go first and she could apply the mask on me. She needn’t have one applied to her own face it if made her uncomfortable. I continued to watch as the instructor applied the plaster strips to the face of the volunteer. She had placed cotton gauze over the mouth and the eyes, pressing to outline the lips as she continued to work the plaster and smooth its surface. The volunteer had chosen to close her mouth. As I watched I became aware of the obvious personal symbolism, life had been bidding me silent for a very long time. I had so many stories and the storytelling always became animated with volume and gesture. For quite some time I had tried to be more subdued and submissive –  silent. Just realizing this brought tears to my eyes and I struggled to suppress the lump in my throat.


I helped Lois get prepared to apply the plaster to my face. I knew she was anxious, her hands were hesitant and I sensed she was not confident about her ability to do this “right”. The process took but a few minutes and Lois was relieved when a volunteer came to speed the process along and help with the application. The plaster sufficiently hardened to remove the form of my face and we placed it on the table as Lois took the chair. I admired her bravery for it was obvious this wasn’t something easy for her.


In turn, each woman shared in the creation and we proceeded to the blow dryers to speed along the drying process. Many women chose to reinforce their masks with additional strips of plaster to strengthen the shape, sanding down rough edges, polishing the surfaces to perfection. Many applied Gesso so that the form could be painted, as others lingered over the craft stations to choose just the right accessories for adornment. Silver hair, tiny shells, golden faces, and sparkling hues, all speaking of women whose hands shaped their story, silently their messages were created.


Time is always a consideration and for the women in the class, other obligations hurried them to complete their maskIMG_5184s. As we sat together in a circle with our gifts in our laps, there remained only six women, a testament to busy lives. Lois was one of the six. Her mask was painted green, “Mother Earth” she said. There were diagonal lines of vibrant blue, and brilliant yellow. “The sky and the sun.” she explained. Haltingly she interpreted her mask as representing her place in the universe, she was a part of it all. “I’ve always put the needs of others before my own needs. I’m learning that I don’t have to do that.” As the others shared, a quiet spirituality was expressed through tears. Individual stories captured hearts as we realized how much we had in common.


When my turn came, I gently held the face toward the women. It was not painted on its exterior, no gesso, no color, and the edges were rough and unpolished. The lips were outlined in red and where the paint had escaped my inexperienced hands, a red mole held prominence to the right of the lips. I quietly offered that this was who I am; part diva, yet unfinished, rough around the edges, not very polished. I had gathered fanciful yarn in hues of azure and sapphire, tacked on tiny sparkling leaves of aqua and draped this from the back toward the front of my mask. This, I explained was a hint of what was on the inside. I IMG_5183turned the face toward the women so that the inside was visible. There, the eyes were beaded bright, turquoise gemstones and buttons, wiry teal glitter and ceramic bobbles surrounded the eyes. I had found these treasures would not adhere to the outside, that discovery had confirmed what I already knew. The mouth was surrounded with crimson reds and small scarlet spikes of wood peeked out from the edges of fire engine red feathers. Here is where my words could be expressed from the open mouth, here is how I would speak my truth, see the world, and find my voice.

This Face and my Marbles

This is the face I woke up with this morning. It met me in the mirror while I was brushing my teeth. I replaced the light bulb in the overhead bathroom fixture and now I can almost see my face without my glasses. I don’t know whether to trust this face any more. I’m beginning to doubt I ever did. Where did that saying come from anyway; “Bags under my eyes”; who called them bags? Samsonite? Sobeys? Are they figurative luggage, or grocery bags? And if I can’t come to work without my purse, my lunch bag, my shoe bag and my running bag, am I a bag lady? Can I be considered a bag lady if I just carry my bags under my eyes? Don’t get me started on that thing that connects my chin to my chest – I seemed to recall a character from Ally McBeal who adored what he referred to as a “wattle”. What an ugly word – “a wattle!” The only time I realize I am wearing one is in photographs. Considering I spent the first part of my life avoiding the camera, I despair that I may spend the second half keeping my wattle out of profile.


Over the last few days I’ve pondered much the aging process. A snapshot of the Italian beauty Sophia Loren convinced me there comes a time in every woman’s life when age is something she should make friends with. If not the best of friends, then perhaps companions; on speaking terms at least, or the beauty aids and fashion statements take on a clownish appeal, with the ability to mock and distort what was once natural and unaffected.


When I was sixteen I fell in love with a boy. No surprise there, it happens every day. But at sixteen, my world was very small, my circle of acquaintances limited to the church where I socialized. That boy broke my heart when he moved away and I still remember burning his letters and pictures in the fireplace. I would not be consoled, for up to that point, I was not accustomed to change and thought the best option to resist it with all my efforts. It didn’t prevent the boy from moving.


That boy is frozen in time, or rather frozen in my mind’s memory of him. I can no longer actually see him; there is just a vague physical recollection of him. But he remains there and has for close to thirty five years. I’m not sure why, but sometimes I dream of him and in those dreams the memory is reinforced like the refresh button on the computer, coming back stronger, more vivid. The phenomenon of social networking allows reminiscing across years to condense all those memories into moments and before the brain can accept the existing reality, there is proof that what you remember no longer exists. In fact, it was gone long ago. His face stares back at me. His aged and mellowed face. The boy is gone. In his place there is a loyal husband, a doting father, a tender grandfather.

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I’ve been ruminating for the last few days. I guess that’s why I’ve looked up the word “wattle” and wondered whether my bags are Samsonite or grocery. I haven’t been watching the progression of age. There wasn’t a time when I noticed I was no longer a teenager, that this day or this week, this year, I will change, I will look different and then I will be older. The teenage memory of love at sixteen got stuck in my heart, it stayed there with my youth and they played awhile. They played together long enough, that I went on without them, getting married, having babies, adjusting to change, creating a life; and then my face stared back at me from the mirror one day and I had arrived.


I couldn’t resist the temptation to look again, at the photo of the boy. This time I noticed his hand tightly hugging the shoulder of the sweet blond girl he married. I noticed too that all that hair is gone and what remains is almost white. It’s no good really. To remain stuck. The memory hasn’t changed, I have. Time has changed me. The only power I have over time is my ability to remember. I still have that. I have the wattle and the bags too so there will be a place – for a while yet – to put my marbles. I’m pretty sure I haven’t lost them.

And thou shalt in thy daughter see…

Article05 She discovered The Alchemist on her own and took from it her favorite philosophy; “When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.” I ignore her but she does not stop loving, I become impatient and she keeps giving.  When I am frustrated with her distractions, she charges ahead anyway and wrestles her dreams into submission. She’s braver than I will ever be, more courageous in her deepest fears and a loyal and true friend of whom there will never be an equal. She’s amazed to see herself grow; I’m amazed it has happened so fast. Her laptop is aggravatingly slow and she dismisses the inconvenience as a chance for her to learn patience. She questions the insecurities of her friends, marveling they have such qualities – while believing she lacks their talent, their looks, their grace, ability, poise. In fact she has all of these wrapped in her heart, her brave and valiant heart that cries when touched by words, sings when lifted high and can remain defiant in the face of the most obstinate opposition.


I thought her an air head. The one who would not be still to read for if the book had no pictures, words could not entertain – an attention span that would quickly flit from subject to statement to question and answer. I viewed this distracted spontaneity as a lack of something; a lack of will, determination, persistence. But there has never been a simple piano ditty, that when once demonstrated, has been played as repeatedly, nor the lyrics to a popular song – used only in the construction of the chords on her guitar (for it is her guitar, it was never really mine) sung over and over and over again. I can’t understand the words; she knows them and their author. I can’t remember her many extracurricular activities, neither does she, but it doesn’t bother or cause her any grief. She laughs when caught in the middle of an event’s arrangements and realizes she knows where she is supposed to be but doesn’t have a clue on how to get there. A butterfly, she lights only briefly in the moments required to suck all the sweetness there is, all the satisfaction to be gained and then she flutters off.


She’ll move she said, to Italy – maybe not tomorrow, but perhaps someday. Was it me who showed her how to dream, can I be the one to take the credit? Or am I just the lucky one, who stands on the sidelines of her show, watching her sputter on the stage of life, trying on the different costumes, launching forward in her greatest role, singing at the top of her lungs
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The Boy

The Boy I admit to not “knowing” my son although it is difficult to really know any seventeen year old.  My own struggle through adolescence is a valid case in point.


There were numerous calls from the school when he was young; not playing well with the other children covered most of the complaints. This call from his teacher came as a result of teaching the history unit covering the Holocaust.  Seeking empathy from her grade eleven students, she made a point about the German people being burdened with the stigma of the Holocaust, somehow feeling responsibility generations later.  At this, my son pipes up to add; “Yeah, it’s probably because they lost.” The telephone call actually arrived before he did that day and when I questioned him about what had happened in History class the main point of the story was there was only fifteen minutes remaining in the class and it was no big deal, he didn’t miss much. He’d been asked to leave the class.  It was not the first time, this teacher just reacted the way most of us would.

 

This is the same kid that will carry his book through the mall so that at any given moment he can sit down to read, living in mortal fear he may be asked to try on clothing or be associated with any other family member. When the car accelerates down the road in herky-jerky fashion, he declines the invitation his permit gives him to drive for fear someone – anyone will see him driving a car that doesn’t function properly.  I have had to stand up and threaten him to slow down during the supper meal, yet he has honed the thirty minute shower to a fine art.  He takes great pride in staying in bed the entire day, emerging like a bear from hibernation, only to eat. After a year of part-time work, I have discovered he cancelled the automatic payment set for each payday to go to his savings account.  From what I can gather, there was no other reason than he wanted to. His long term goal of buying a car gets mixed up with the new laptop he must have or the cell phone that allows constant texting.  The cost of one semester of university has no meaning for him, he has learned to stare blankly ahead, waiting for the speech to end, adding “ah huh” when he thinks you have finished.


A younger boy refused (much to my chagrin) to be right handed and any attempt I made to press the crayon into his chubby little right hand fingers  was followed with a resolute pause, while he switched hands and went merrily along his lefty way. A younger boy could not be convinced participating in a sport would give him something in which he could excel – something to call his own.  He would stand, arms folded, practicing his blank stare.  A younger boy cared little for my futile attempts at artistic collection, when I tried valiantly to peak his interest in kaleidoscopes. His was the story of books. How very odd it is that I don’t remember trying to make him love books.  I loved to own them, run my hands over their covers and devour them in redemptive solitude. As he busied himself gobbling up his supper before rushing out the door to work, he plunked his tremendous hardcover on the kitchen table and it is then I realized he loved books.


There exists an infinitesimally small glimmer of hope concealed very deep in my heart.  I cannot be assured my mother held this same hope, for when the teacher’s call beat me home she met me at the door screaming. It was not the first time. I had made it to grade ten before the principal met me in the hallway to advise that by now I should have been expelled. “You get out of this classroom and don’t come back until you are ready to apologize”, the teacher had pronounced. To which I had replied; “I guess I won’t be back then, eh?” I flouted authority at every opportunity and in my recollection, for no other reason than it was something I needed to do. My first part-time job ended, despite my father’s rescue attempt and every effort my mother made to fashion me into a lady, failed miserably.


School had never appealed to me much; too busy honing my wit, using the foibles of others as my whetstone.  At forty, I went back to school and managed to obtain an undergraduate degree. As a chubby kid, I remember the sting of verbal barbs slung my way. “You’re a nice kid, but your mother dresses you funny.” My son looks to my father and despairs over his five foot whatever stature, sure that he will not measure up, in more ways than one. I got to be with him for the driver’s test. As he stood silently by I chatted with the examiner making small talk. I gave him my best advice; back into the parking space so pulling out would be one less reason to panic.  I tried to read my book in the waiting room while I waited for him to return.  He pushed through the door biting his nail, showing me his nervousness while he triumphed at his passing.  “Thanks Mom”, he says “For chatting up the examiner, she gave me a fourth try at parallel parking when normally you only get three.” I was just joyful it got to be me that took this ride with him.

 

He’s decided he needs to live with his father now. “I love you Mom, I just don’t like your rules.” My heart breaks, but I know he has to go. Just as there is a line that I cannot move, there is a line that he must cross.  It’s the way of the world, the law of nature that the bird is pushed out of the nest before he thinks he’s ready to fly; and fly he will.

Some Day when I’m Awfully Old

stressed-womanThey had warned me not to talk. So sure were they that I would push the air with my finger, or disturb the delicate boardroom balance, they had warned me not to talk. They were much more experienced in these things than I. They had witnessed verbal outbursts and assertive behavior and wished to shield me from any bias that may result if I talked. So I wrote out my words and I practiced reading them, straining to keep my face neutral, my demeanor calm. I answered all of their charges skipping over any judgment. I had decided I could be content in this job that had lasted the longest of any I had ever had. I heaved a heavy sigh as I  realized I could stay if I did not talk.  As long as I did my job, I thought no one could complain. I had practiced the ritual of being employed for a life time.  Desperation could not force me to reconsider now. Work, filled with tedium and monotonous repetition,  was a worthy pursuit. One could pay the bills. I had compromised; passion for pay check. Along with my coffee I gulped down doubts every morning and got in line behind hundreds of other women masterful in the art of subterfuge. And it almost worked. For awhile.

 

There are often very crooked paths that get us to any given destination. The way is not always perfectly straight. So much so, that even when we turn back and run, the way from which we came is blocked – permanently and we have no choice, but to push forward. Like the day they said we are deleting your job and here is a list of all the others you can choose to occupy instead. You have a month to decide. Let us know. I thought I had chosen wisely with my little yellow highlighter marking out the ones I qualified for, crossing off the ones too tedious, circling the remaining possibilities and finally identifying the winner. Terribly complicated it all seemed initially; “We don’t know who we’ll choose to train you for this” they said, when presented with my choice. “It’d be best if you sat out for a week while we think about it.” In hindsight, that should have been a clue. But I was new and eager and scared someone might think me stupid so I sat out for a week. The first two weeks on the job I met my boss three times; once to be introduced, and twice in the office of human resources to identify the myriad ways I had failed to measure up; all within the first two weeks – quite a record, even for me. “Go home.” They advised. They had presented me with a list. All typewritten and neat, there on the table, complete with bulleted form and its own envelope. They made it official with the help of the rather tired and vacant looking personnel officer who only echoed the supervisor’s regrets. I had not just failed, but I had failed in so many ways and this with only four days on the job.

 

I’m not sure where it comes from but in circumstances that have every appearance of smelling badly, I am filled with a righteous indignation; a genuine compulsion to set things straight. I wasn’t sure just what the record was, who had been keeping score or exactly why it mattered, but I decided to take advantage of all those union dues I had paid over the years and request their attendance at a grievance hearing, where I promised not to push the air with my finger.  I would sincerely love to report they saw the error of their ways and expressed regret for the anxiety and inconvenience to me they had caused. How different my world would be if they had admitted the error, and welcomed me back. It was not until much later I could reflect upon the futility of the stammering union rep as he pointed to the lack of training, the only  misdemeanor he could prove. Maybe it was the point during questioning where her cell phone went off and she left to answer the call that I realized something. No, that’s not really true. I didn’t just realize something. I had an epiphany. Like a heavenly choir filled with angels singing from on high. I walked into this meeting today all ready with my defenses and my explanations and none of them were necessary because I came with the same dignity and integrity and a life-long quest for authenticity that I will leave the room with; unless I let them take it away from me. I understood that what was playing out before me was outside of my control. Some initiative, some edict, somebody’s assurance that the favored girl whose job I took would get it back and I would be asked to go home. The situation would be fixed.

 

So I went home.  I could be there still in that place where one tucks away dreams with your keys in your purse in the morning. I would be kind to those same women, two of whom sat across the table from me that day and by all appearances had achieved the success and associated status that eludes so many. They had tried to convince me that I had no value and this was why they had to meet me because I had failed. When all was said and done the union rep came to me and said, “They want to know what you want.” I told him there wasn’t enough time to tell him, I had to get to the rest of my life.

From Prositute to Royalty

indexShe was just a prostitute and as they go, not a very worthy one. In the age she lived, one did not often get the chance to outlive a label and she was known as a harlot, the old fashioned word for prostitute. Like so many nights before, this night she took in two men. You see, her home was ideally situated for her business. She lived within the walls of the city, making for easy access and undetected exits. Unlike so many nights before, the men welcomed by her were Jews and she knew why they had come; not to hire her, but as spies for the enemies of her city. For someone in her profession, it was unusual – to say the least – to have any kind of faith, let alone a faith in a higher power; a faith, not in her own government, not in the laws of her own city, but in the god of her enemies.

 

It wasn’t long before the city law enforcement heard of the presence of the spies and sent out search parties to root them out and dispose of them. But the reputation of this god had preceded them and the prostitute – who was called Rahab, could cite every episode of miraculous delivery, every battle where their god had intervened to their victory, every triumph of their conquests and what’s more – she believed.

 

Before she helped them to escape, she hid them on the roof of her house and she made them swear that before they returned; and it was not a matter of whether they would return, but when – they would remember her. Not just me she pleaded, but my family and all that belong to them. Not to be pushed around, the spies upped the ante by placing the onus of rescue squarely on her shoulders. Hang this red rope in the window, gather your family in this house and we will honour what you have done for us today. Otherwise – no deal. And she did. And so did they. In fact, before they burned her city to the ground, their leader – oh, his name was Joshua , ordered all those within her house to be removed and placed out of harm’s way, far from the fire. The name of her city? Jericho. For those of you who may not know, she made a life for herself among the Israelites and ended up marrying a guy named Salmon. They had a baby boy. They named him Boaz. When Boaz grew up, he took a wife, Ruth and together they had a baby boy they named Obed. As these things do happen, Obed later married and had a baby boy they named Jesse and Jesse became the father of King David; the royal line from which was born Jesus. Remember now – she was just a prostitute.

 

Words Past