I noticed a lot of Memorial Day posts on Facebook last week. Gentle reminders to honor our fallen. Remember, they urged, it’s not National Barbeque Day. Yet these two events have been linked in my mind for as long as I can remember. Traditions. Mine are so ingrained that I can’t imagine holidays any other way. Reading the posts Monday morning I closed my eyes for a moment...and went back.
They always planned ahead. Even though common gardening wisdom says to pinch back the mums until the 4th of July, my folks wanted to make sure there were plenty of flowers. So they let them bloom. Memorial Day preparations began the night before with Mom in the kitchen. She stirred vanilla custard on the double boiler, covered the thickened pudding with plastic wrap and set it in the fridge to thoroughly chill.
Memories are delightful, dreamy places. It’s a blessing that I selectively remember the most savory morsels. The sweet moments mixed with a few tangy ones.
Early in the morning my parents worked together--Mom with coffee cans full of water and Dad perched over the flower bed. When the cans were filled with mums we loaded up and and drove to the other side of town to fetch my grandmother.
Once Grandmother joined us we drove to the cemetery where she set to work. Kneeling at the gravestones in a flowered dress and enormous sun hat she tenderly clipped the overgrown grass. She worked in silence caring for two--my grandfather’s stone and the tiny marker for her firstborn son. We set the cans of blooms in place...and left.
Memorial Day was always the same. And it will be.... forever in my mind. There’s a comfort in that. Cans of chrysanthemums, Grandmother’s hat, an expanse of lawn dotted with solemn markers. That’s what Memorial Day means to me.
Then there was the food. Back at home Dad filled a stainless steel cylinder with the pre-chilled custard and hunkered at the curb cranking the ice cream maker. It felt like an eternity before we were allowed to sample the first spoonfuls of sweet soft-serve. How could we wait half a day to dive into heaping bowls?
In the golden late afternoon Dad started the grill. Grilling at our house was a ritual of fire enhanced with intoxicating aromas of charcoal, hickory, gasoline. My brother and I watched with amazement. Every time. From this pillar of fire came juicy burgers that were seared to perfection. We had a feast--burgers with homegrown tomatoes, hot german potato salad, ice cream smothered with fresh picked strawberries.
What delicious memories! Yes, that too is what Memorial Day means to me--a day to remember. Family memories and traditions so vivid I go back...at the mere mention of the day. Even though my childhood home is far away my memories remain close.
A clip from the past. My dad gives my then 6-year-old son a grilling lesson.
Active listening. Josep Caballe’-Domenech delivered his dress rehearsal message Saturday afternoon insisting that actively listening to every single part of the music is our most important charge. No players buried in their music stands--he wanted awareness. And it’s not just the individual musicians who must actively listen, the conductor also listens and responds to feedback. Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic on conducting, “One of the ways to make your sound better is to make it really obvious that you’re really listening and that it really matters to you what it sounds like.” He goes on to say, “As soon as it’s apparent that your ears are open and that you’re interested and you’re following the contour of the sound, then that very contour is affected by that.” Caballe’-Domenech is a fiery conductor who demands our best. In spite of the hard work, playing for him is a most rewarding orchestral experience. To be tuned in to each note and every nuance is beyond compare. It’s electrifying. When playing in the zone your senses are heightened. Constantly receiving feedback, musicians react with split-second precision. And just like he said, the orchestra is not a stage full of individuals playing their part; it is one instrument responding as a single organism.
In this scenario, musicians get feedback from their stand partners, section leaders, concertmaster, and conductor. Rehearsals are full of verbal feedback; in performance feedback is exclusively non-verbal. Musicians use their specific training to listen and respond to a huge number of variables--pitch, dynamics, articulation, style. They take the notes of the page and along with the interpreter, the conductor, and the information practiced and retained from rehearsals they work together to create a spontaneous musical experience. At the end the audience delivers even more feedback by way of applause, cheering and maybe even standing to show appreciation. By the time the performance is done, I know where I stand.
What happens to a musician when they can’t rely on feedback? Or their traditional notion of feedback is turned upside down? I’m also a member of a new kind of orchestra-the Twtr Symphony. Made up of musicians across the world recording remotely, it’s a whole new concept. “...While we approach performance in a very different way than other symphony orchestras, it is our extensive use of social media as a tool for connection which sets us apart." ~ Composer Chip Michael. We met first through social media by tweeting our personal plans, projects and experiences. Our feedback began as a supportive forum, then one by one we auditioned and became an orchestra.
When I started I had more questions than confidence. Alone in my studio with a piece of music and a click track, where was the feedback I wanted? What I got instead was harsh. The click track was a stern taskmaster. The playback was cruel. Neither were willing to bend--or lie. I found myself delivering my finished recording with tentative words, “if you need me to re-record just let me know.” With no stand partner to smile and no audience to clap I was looking for some kind of positive feedback, reassurance or a little pat on the back, hoping that my playing was good enough. After I sent my recording I had even more questions. How do I fit in the group? What does the orchestra sound like?
Maybe I was getting the feedback I needed all along. What happens when conventions are altered? We adapt. True I wasn’t getting “normal” feedback. Instead of concentrating on what I wasn’t hearing I had to look and listen a little bit harder. What was I really hearing? Enthusiasm. Excitement. And lots and lots of support. The Twtr Symphony is an orchestra that supports the group and supports each other. Just like the conventional orchestra I mentioned above we are more than individuals recording separate parts--we are united through support, sharing and investment in the outcome. That’s the amazing thing about social media--it really does connect us. My questions were replaced with confidence and trust. And I’m glad to be part of the adventure.
Share the tough stuff. At least a third of this blog is devoted to it. Courageously dive in--and your art will flow. So here goes.
Yesterday I lost a dear friend. My greyhound, Nevada. We had a fine long run together--10 years. I'm sorry it's over yet I treasure every moment we shared.
He was a being who did more to open my heart than any other. So I spent the day cleaning his crate and blankets and transforming his space into a journaling desk. I know he'll send inspiration.
Remembering the big dude in happier, healthier days.
The Yves St. Laurent Retrospective is a dazzling display of more than 200 haute couture garments, along with photos, sketches and films that document the designer’s creative output. This huge, complex exhibit is a visual feast that gets better with each successive gallery. But the final piece holds the secret of his incredible 40-year career. After all the colors, intricate details and lavish fabrics it’s a small but profound symbol--a heart. In 1962 St. Laurent designed a jewelled heart brooch that he included in every runway show. He pinned it to his favorite garment of that season’s collection.
Heart by Yves Saint Laurent, 1962 © Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent
A passage in the guidebook from the YSL Retrospective at Petit Palais in Paris: “At the end of the vista gleams the Heart brooch, a talisman Yves Saint Laurent treasured and
which he put on a dress in every one of his parades, like a good luck charm.”
Yves St. Laurent was a passionate creator. He loved making clothes to celebrate women’s bodies. His was a magical combination of talent, genius and passion rarely seen in our world. I love hearing his creative story. Twice a year he travelled to his idyllic retreat in Morocco. There he was inspired to sketch his couture collections. He said he simply put his pen to the paper and the designs revealed themselves. What an amazing description of creative flow. And the secret? His work came from the heart.Most of us won’t experience the serendipitous career that Yves St. Laurent enjoyed, yet we can practice putting more of ourselves into our creative output. I love Madeline Bruser’s book for musicians, The Art of Practicing. After teaching thorough warm-up exercises she gets to the crux of the matter. More than sharing yourself with a live audience in performance, it’s crucial to practice opening your heart in daily practice sessions.
She states, “Summoning your heart’s power is the final preparatory step before practicing.”
This practice isn’t just for musicians. Dancers, painters, all creatives will benefit from her heart-opening approach.
She goes on to say, “When we practice the heart is often obscured under multiple layers of mental and emotional preoccupations. We are distracted by countless judgements of ourselves and by random thoughts. We may feel anxious about getting the music ready to meet a deadline. We may resent having to practice, or we may be overly excited about practicing and dive in with insufficient sensitivity. These habitual mental and emotional states keep us from noticing the raw, sweet, unbearable tender feelings we have for music. We don’t need these habitual states of mind. We need access to the throbbing heart beneath them.”
Practice opening your heart. First quiet your mind and be present. Sit quietly and direct your focus to your heart. Ms. Bruser asks us to imagine losing a loved one in order to open the heart but accessing your heart doesn’t have to be painful. I believe it’s just as effective to visualize someone you love deeply. I think of my children and immediately my heart begins to swell and open. Now you will be open to share your creative gifts. Make this a part of your daily practice and it will be easier to call upon in performance. Your audience will feel your passion.
“What do you want for Mother’s Day?” we’d ask. “Peace and quiet!” was always her reply. “Mo-om. Really.” “You heard me.” One year I planned ahead. On the back of the TV Guide in a Virginia Slims ad, was the most elegant gift. A golden dress--made of paper. It took my 10-year-old breath away. Mom would be so beautiful. When the day came I was rather astonished that she wasn’t interested. I badgered her all day. “Try it on. I want to see!” “When are you going to try it on?” She never did.
I’m not sure we ever agreed on gifts. I wanted to give her things; she didn’t want things. She gave me so much and I wanted to give back. This week, when I heard the news about Maurice Sendak I knew in a flash. She really did want peace and quiet. She wanted those tender moments at the end of the day. A quiet time when she could hold her child in her lap and just be together, lost in imagination. A simple gift for mom and me. Storytime.
Maurice Sendak. Hearing his name sent me back in time. I didn’t realize how much I missed reading stories. Thinking about Max’s wild rumpus and batter-coated Mickey brought me back to nights of freshly bathed little boys and baby shampoo-scented snuggles. It's startling to notice how connected we were, and still are, through story time. “Read it again!” Do I still know every word by heart? Yes. My sons do too.
I went back even further. A distant memory of sitting in my mother’s lap smelling her lotion and cherishing her warmth. As if it were yesterday I heard her cooing voice reading my favorites--also Maurice Sendak. The Nutshell Library. We knew every word by heart. My ragged set of tiny books is waiting on my bookshelf. Read me a story....just one more time.
Stressed? My friends and I have been talking about our stress lately. So today I’m revisiting a previous post on coping. It is our nature to comfort ourselves in times of stress. Anxiety takes over and so does our "fight or flight" response. Our comforts are a way of escaping or running away. Babies soothe themselves with a binkie or a blankie. Adults have it tougher. With a fully-stocked, virtual medicine chest full of treatments it’s so easy to reach for temporary albeit, destructive help. Soothing in the moment, regretful in the morning. These kinds of comforts seem to work until we succumb to illness or injury. How do you cope with life's ups and downs? It can be a tremendous challenge to stay on track when you feel overworked. Through several years of trial and error I've developed my own toolkit of strategies. Coping strategies come into play for me when an entire month is over-scheduled or when I'm hurting from loss. Even with tools in place it's not easy, particularly when I'm stressed. But I keep trying. Yes, these strategies can work for us, wouldn't it also be great if we could teach our kids how to deal with the tough times they'll face as adults?Here is my basic set of tools:Be GentleTake Care of YourselfGet OutsideAsk for HelpBe Creative
Be Gentle. This is number one on my list because it's the toughest for me to remember. When you live by the calendar and the schedule and the clock it's easy to push yourself too hard. And that's precisely why we need extra special self-care. Being gentle means forgiving--the true essence of love. It’s reserving a bit of the love you send to family and friends and turning back towards yourself. Would you forgive your over scheduled child’s messy room and your grieving friend’s forgetfulness? Grant yourself the same gentle care.
Take Care Yourself. Do you live by your “to do” list? Can you turn a list of chores upside down and just once a week put fun at the top? Scheduling play offers respite from your stress. With something to look forward to you lighten your internal load. Also, plan ahead to assure your life is running smoothly in spite of any outside chaos. Stock up on healthy foods so there are good choices at home, at work and in the car. Do you have the time to make one big meal? Make it a good one that will see you through a few days. And allow yourself a few moments of introspection. Stress fills all the empty space with noise. Like static, it’s a constant grit in the background. Taking some time to journal or to close your eyes and slow your breathing in mini-meditation will turn down the volume of the chaos.
Get Outside. There's nothing like taking a walk to keep you quite literally grounded. There may not be enough time to work out--you may not even feel like exercising--but find a little time to take a stroll or just sit outside. Being outside demonstrates where you fit in the world. While walking look down at the tiniest ant; then up at the expansive sky. Breathe in the fragrant morning and see the vibrant colors. Take a moment to experience all the sensations and know that you play a unique role in this incredible place. Stop and savor "....the tastes and smells in the air, the feel of the wind as it caresses the skin, the feel of the ground under our feet as we walk upon it. And how much easier it is to feel that ground if you allow yourself to sense that the ground itself is feeling your steps as you walk upon it." quoted from
-David Abram, fr. The Spell of the Sensuous via Keri Smith's blog.
Ask for Help. Stress turns us inward. It can be a lonely place. And physically painful. Picture the pain of heartache. Do you find yourself withdrawing, even clutching your chest? Reaching out feels counter-intuitive. In spite of the discomfort it is important to keep reaching out. Remember: if you ask, you will receive an answer. If this is as challenging for you as it is for me, then start small. Ask for help in your journal....or in your heart. It is enough to ask, “may I have help managing my stress?” After loads of practice asking God for help you may find the courage to reach out to people too. When you receive help--give thanks.
Be Creative. Stress and loss and pain feel destructive. Direct that negative energy towards creating and it becomes a positive outlet. Play like a child. Scribble with crayons. Find a soup recipe that will help you take care of yourself. Make up a silly song while you drive to work. Collect a leaf, a feather, a stone from your walk and make a place for them inside. Write your stresses in a journal. Play.
How do you manage your stress? Will you try these strategies the next time? Their common thread is attention to the present moment. Stress takes us away, to either the past or the future. Next time you feel like running away--stay. Fear not each disquieting moment. Focus on the present. Each time you try, it gets easier. This advice is meant to address stress; not depression. Are you so stressed that your feelings interfere with everyday life? Learn more about the warning signs of depression.
May is here. It’s time to wrap up another performance schedule and another school year. A calendar chock full of dates and pencil marks and predictability gives way to a solitary question mark. It’s time to move on; time to say goodbye. In one sense we feel welcome relief to set aside bursting planner. And yet.... The unknown brings its own set of challenges. Will I like my new teacher? Will I get enough free-lance work to pay my bills? Will be able to soak in enough of my teen before he leaves for college?
Can you tell I feel nostalgic today? The time has come for me to say goodbye in writing. It’s been two years since my youth orchestra played their last concert. Before that I spent a frantically busy six years running the orchestra. Finally, today I can look back and say it was worth every hectic moment. I had fun!
The last concert was a dream come true. A side by side with great music, a convivial potluck dinner, and a big, enthusiastic crowd--everything came together perfectly. And just like that it was over. We ran out of money and I ran out of energy. I had spent six years fighting to keep it vital but this time was different. I must have known it was time for a change.
My web designer called a month ago to see if I wanted to renew the domain again. I took a deep breath, and said no. Today I’m looking back with fondness and forward with....well, that remains to be seen. It’s time for change. Courage to you in yours.
Many, many thanks to students, families and colleagues who helped and supported us through the years. Goodbye LYS, You make me proud!
By shifting your focus from a goal to the process you may find your work goes more smoothly.
Last Friday was Girlfriend Day. A long time in the planning this date had it all--lunch, boutique shopping and a museum outing. My friend, a healer and a spreader-of-positive energy, called two months ago to set up our schedule. An amazing exhibit was coming to our museum and she wanted to go with me. A real coup for Denver, the Yves Saint Laurent Retrospective landed at the Denver Art Museum on March 25th--its only stop in the U.S. We talked with calendars in hand at the end of February and set the date.
I just knew this would be a fabulous day. My entire focus was on having a wonderful time with my dear friend. Weather, crowds, traffic--none of that mattered. I had set an intention, without even really thinking about it, that I would have an amazing time. Intention is empowering.
Intention and expectation have a positive or negative affect on your creative flow. Just as potent as intention, expectation is a set-up that leads to disappointment and resentment. There’s a holiday I tend to associate with expectation--Valentine’s Day. It never ceases to amaze me that a day set aside for celebrating love is so loaded with expectations--assuming, pretending, complaining, whining, wishing and, in the last chamber, comparing.
I could have had a very different day. What if I had spent two months thinking about crowds and traffic and worrying that I wouldn’t have the perfect day? All too often I anticipate a dismal outcome. Afraid of what might happen. And because expectations are so powerful, it's challenging to view my behavior without criticism. It's hard to remember to take a deep breath, let it go and simply try again next time. The funny thing is the day wasn't technically perfect. I was late and out of gas. She overslept. The restaurant we picked was closed. None of that mattered. With no expectations and no goal of perfection we bobbed along the river, weaving around rocks, pulled by the current. Very much in the flow.
“What if you just knew everything was working out perfectly?” This sweet sentiment by artist Rachelle Donahoe has been stuck to my girlfriend’s fridge for years. It gives me a little boost every time I see it. Lucky her! She gets a nudge every day. Can I keep my eye on the process instead the goal? With this memorable day in mind I might. At least I can try. And you?