“What if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf? What then?”

Was this the album cover of my youth?
Was this the album cover of my youth?

This morning, with my daughter’s school I went to hear the Dayton Philharmonic concert perform several stories, including Peter and The Wolf.  I was sleep-deprived, having worried overnight about a very scary situation a friend was going through–a reminder that we don’t get out of here alive. The strains of Peter and the Wolf  hurled me back to childhood, and left me tearful…the music (as music will sometimes do) approached me from other human hearts (composer, musicians), reached into my body, held my wrung-out heart, exposing that red and tender mess to music’s melodic touch.  Of course I cried.

At the end of the story of Peter and the Wolf, the characters parade to take the trapped wolf to the zoo.  “What if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf?  What then?” asks Peter’s grandfather.

I cried while I watched the story today in part because a friend from college, the roommate of my college boyfriend, went to the hospital last Christmas day because his stomach hurt.  It was stomach cancer.  Two weeks ago, despite the ever-youthful impish angel energy he carried with him so beautifully through the decades, after how many rounds of chemo and thousands of people circling him with love and support, he died.  (The wolf was not caught.  But my friend the imp-angel, in his final months, due to his loving, kind spirit, pulled back together a circle of friends whom I’d missed for years.  One bright fact in this horrible loss, the light he shone on us.)

This morning I learned that last night’s freshest reminder of our damned mortality, my friend who I worried about while I did not sleep, might have cheated death awhile longer.  This morning I pled in my journal , “Please let him be okay,” covered the page with scrawled hearts, as I often do when I’m wishing, but I might as well have written, more bluntly: “Please let him cheat death awhile longer.”

Each breath cheats death, doesn’t it?  As I write this and as you read it, look at the two of us: just a couple of lucky, breathing cheaters.

As a child, the wolf was a scary dark force, who always slinked up at the same point in the symphony, on cue.  This morning, watching the Dayton Philharmonic and the Dayton Ballet School amid an audience of school children,  my adult mind was able to see a crucial nuance: The wolf is hungry.

The wolf is always hungry.

So hungry, in fact, that she swallows the duck whole.  (If you listen closely, you can still hear the duck’s song.  That’s called memory, children.)

But what if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf?  What then?

To go skating on your name…again…

“By tracing it twice, I fell through the ice of Alice…” –Tom Waits

Today, I went ice skating for the fourth time in my life.  The first time was in my late teens, and despite back then being a passable roller skater, my recollection of ice skating was that it was somewhat of a disaster.  (After mostly falling, I had no urge to try it again.)  Last autumn, when my daughter’s school had an ice skating field trip planned, they needed drivers.  I signed up.  I was anxious, but thought I would try skating again.

(It was fun!  And who knew I’d have the opportunity, at age 47, to revise my long-believed story that I couldn’t ice skate?)   I went on a second school skating trip last week, and again, had fun.  Both times my daughter skated, she grew more and more comfortable on the ice, as children tend to do when they are learning.  (It was odd but also fun to be learning alongside her.)  I fell once and hurt my wrist, but not so badly that it scared me off that cold frozen ground.

When a friend suggested we take our kids skating today, I thought, Sure!  (Ice skating twice in one week!  And with bruises to prove it!  I’m starting to feel like a jock.)  Today, again it was fun, but alarming (and annoying) how many people had stopped in the flow on the ice, tossing up human obstacles in the way of us beginners.  Why had they stopped?  Posing for photos or taking photos.  

On the ice.

As a novice, ice skating is an activity that forces me to focus on what I am doing at each moment.  The present.  (Remember that old friend, the present?)  On the ice, if I start to have a conversation, or think about something else for more than a moment, if my focus is on anything other than my body and my balance, that’s when I tend to fall.  (“To go skating on your name…and by tracing it twice…” sang Tom Waits, about to fall through.  More about that song here.)

I love taking pictures; I understand the urge.  Like skating, it’s fun.  But there’s a balance to be found, especially as a parent.  Accumulating roll after roll of photographs, as a new parent I realized I can either take pictures, or I can participate in my life.  (Today I wanted to say to the posers and clickers, “Enough with the smart phones and selfies.  Enough.  Stop documenting and live your life.”  But I was polite, and just said, “Excuse me,” as I skated around them.)

Maybe it’s time for a new bumper sticker: Hang up and skate.


Sufjan Stevens, wearing them well
Sufjan Stevens, wearing them well

When I watch this video of Sufjan Stevens doing his song “Chicago” on Austin City Limits, so many things coalesce for me…semi-obvious things that my friends would recognize as important to me (theatrical performance, my recent interest in wearing wings in public) and also things that no one knows, things that float and soar in the interior of my psyche, blind, nameless things, unnamable things, things that make me do the creative work I do, things that keep my heart beating.

(Sufjan Stevens, young wispy man, young crackle-voice, young echo of Clive Owen…oh, how you would have had me swooning back in those younger years, oh, how you now have me swooning for other reasons, less stirred, more steady…)

Oh, you dark dreams of adolescence that soured as you were neglected, decades later return on such iridescent wings, wings made silently in the caves of my heart, refined and fortified over time, now landing you dreams effortlessly, carrying (still!) you old larval friends, now winged on impossibly transparent magic.  Bad metaphors don’t stand up but are somehow sustained by the sound of that old laughter, that trickster, Time.  And Breath.  And Sufjan Stevens sings:

I made a lot of mistakes

I made a lot of mistakes

I made a lot of mistakes

I made a lot of mistakes

“I love that song,” says my six-year-old daughter, who asked to watch the video on youtube, again.

(Me too, sweetie, thinks her mama, caught, deliciously, between the push and the pull of that trickster, Time.)

Even icons die

(Lou Reed rocked and took some trippy photos, too.)
(Lou Reed rocked and took some trippy photos, too.)

When my daughter was about two and a half, we were listening to Velvet Underground and Nico sing, “Sunday Morning” on a Sunday morning (as is often our practice.  And “I’m waiting for my man” was soundtrack to French toast and pancakes–whichever vessel we chose for the morning’s drug: maple syrup.  For a while, we would alternate between that album and the Fugs song “Nothing.”).  As a surprise, while my husband was out of the room, I coached my daughter to say “Lou Reed is an icon.”  (She said it right on cue and got the laugh I was hoping for.)  “Lou Reed is an icon” became a sweet little joke in our house, an illustration of how we adults were indoctrinating our child.  (I make no apology about this.)

When my husband came outside into the sunshine today and said that Lou Reed had died, I cried.  Of course I didn’t know Lou Reed, and at first it felt hyperbolic, crying, but it came from a sincere feeling of shock and loss.  (How can Lou Reed die?  Right, I know we all die, but how can that apply to Lou Reed?)  I hugged my husband.  He said I was going to make him cry.  I explained to my daughter why I was crying.  We had a good talk, defining the word icon.  We talked about some of our other icons.  Some are famous, some are not.  The constellation changes, and also doesn’t.

Lou Reed is an icon.

A Suzuki parent’s lament (and occasional triumph)

These cuties make violin practice fun!  (Sometimes.)
These cuties make violin practice fun! (Sometimes.)

I’m not a musician.  I played oboe for a brief time (a few weeks?) in middle school, but gave up because it was too hard.  I love music, I sang in musicals throughout school, but I cannot read music.  As a Suzuki parent, this is a challenge.

My daughter, who is now five and a half, showed an early passion for violin, with specific interest in western swing.  Her grandmother had studied violin at Juliard, and played in the Houston Symphony.  So we encouraged the child, and began Suzuki lessons when she was four.  (Complicating factor: she had severely injured her left hand in an accident when she was three and a half, so from the start, she has been playing violin left-handed.)

The Suzuki method, taught in its strictest form, would have required me as home practice teacher to learn violin alongside my daughter.  Because I’m not doing that, we have another challenge in learning, and in getting her to practice.

Early on, I talked to a friend (who is also a wonderful violin player) about this issue of getting the child to practice.  It seemed like I should teach my daughter about the importance of having a practice, having any practice.  My friend advised that if my daughter loves violin, I should consider not putting that baggage onto playing violin.  She assured me that people do learn even if they don’t practice every day, and that when a person wants to learn a particular piece, for instance, s/he will work at it and want to practice.  Sagely advice.  I felt so liberated!

Meanwhile, we do need to do some amount of practice.  Here are some things that have helped:

  • Following my daughter’s teacher at lessons, we use plastic eggs in a  basket, each egg containing one task.  This adds a sense of play, and it also makes my daughter feel she’s in control–she’s choosing what to do rather than my telling her.  (She and I often collaborate on extra things to put in the eggs.  She wanted an empty egg, so I added one.  And when I realized she wanted more freedom, in another egg, I wrote on a slip of paper, “violin thing–your choice”  so she really does have a sense of being able to do what she wants while we practice.  This has yielded some wonderful improvisation.)
  • Again, at the teacher’s suggestion, we use a set of Russian nesting dolls to count repetitions of a piece.  We unpack the dolls, put them in a row, and then she closes a doll each time she does the thing, until they are all packed into one.

These are some things that have NOT helped:

  • Bossing her around;
  • Begging;
  • Getting really frustrated and walking away.

We don’t do charts and incentives, unless you count the classic vegetables before desert, “we need to practice before we go to the playground” sort of thing.  I’ve never wholeheartedly tried charts and incentives in general in our house, in part because philosophically, we want her to experience intrinsic (vs. extrinsic) motivation.  I don’t want her to practice for the sake of pleasing me, or getting money or a prize.  I want her to practice because she wants to do it, because it matters to her, because she loves playing violin.  I want her to have the joy of doing something  for the love of it.  Or for herself!  Short term, this means I don’t have as many ways to convince her to practice.  Which can be really frustrating.  (Sometimes I want to give up, but I don’t want her to give up, so I have to model not giving up.  Kind of like a lot of things in life, actually.)

Recently, we were at a group lesson, and it was my daughter’s turn to play her solo piece.  She was feeling put on the spot, and wasn’t comfortable enough to play the piece her teacher was asking for.  She began to cry, and we had to leave the room.  (We’d gotten a ride from a friend, so we had to wait until the end of the lesson, which was probably a good thing.  I might otherwise have left.)  As I sat, wanting to comfort my daughter, she said very clearly that the problem was that I hadn’t been making enough time to practice.  (She was right.  It was summer, our schedule had been irregular, and we had not been practicing enough.)  I felt ashamed, too ashamed even to explain to the friendly parents in the other room.  But as I thought about it, I realized that my anxiety was about my being judged, about being seen as an imperfect Suzuki parent.  Whose business is that?  Who cares?  After the lesson was over, I explained to the adults that my daughter said I had not been making enough time to practice, and she was right.  I am not Catholic, but I imagine that’s what confession feels like.  It felt good to tell the truth.  And then I recommitted to practicing regularly.  Even when I remind her of what she said, my daughter often does not want to practice, but then, she’s a kid.  There are so many other things she wants to do.  I can’t blame her.

Music should be fun.  And lately, when I let go of trying to steer it too much, it has been.

“…don’t forget you’re alive.”

Joe Strummer.  Nice hat.
Joe Strummer. Nice hat.

Last night, I  watched “The Future is Unwritten,” a documentary about the life of Joe Strummer.  I didn’t know much about Strummer beyond his music, and it was quite illuminating.  One thing that sticks with me was when he said:

“I don’t have any message except: Don’t forget you’re alive.”

(And all day, the words from Jon Langford’s “Oh No, Hank!” –from Nashville Radio–have been also going through my head: “He’s somewhere out there, happy and alive.”  It adds texture that the corn is actually as high as an elephant’s eye at the moment in my Ohio.)

From both legendary musical sources: Good message.  It strikes me that Strummer (and maybe punk rock, and Langford too, while we’re at it, who’s still somewhere out there, possibly happy and actually alive) is/was about nothing less than, essentially, reclaiming humanity.

“the briar grows before the rose, and neither grows alone.”

Thinking about Jack Hardy today, this May Day.  (Here’s my homage to Jack.)  I can’t find a clip of him playing the song, but here are the lyrics, for your edification, on this fine first day of May…

May Day by Jack Hardy

it's not like pan to play his flute
for those who dance for fun
the fire flickers through poison roots
where chance is on the run

it's not elves to hide their gold
where fortune seekers dive
though pirate lore and island shore
yield only ransomed lives

there's may day and may wine
and may i please come home
but the briar grows before the rose
and neither grows alone
we'll dance tonight 'til we faint in the light
of the dawn's sweet song of spring
'round the may pole like a day stole
like our feet are borne of wings

it's not sirens to sing their songs
for sailors with cautious ears
they lure no coward right or wrong
and trade not death for fear

it's not like kings to yield their wines
for hundreds of years of war
though drop by drop the ancient vine
paints blood on every door

(repeat chorus)

it's not like girls to give consent
to men of ragged prose
though poets sing of nursery rhymes
their cradles are filled with hope

it's not like me to give my heart
in these drowsy daffodil days
though dreams they douse the timid spark
where sleep presents its plays

(repeat chorus)

it's not like saints to tell their tales
of nights on windswept moors
where death defies the dreams of fate
to close the cellar door

it's not like shepherds to lay them down
when wolves are on the prowl
though songs they scare the waking town
an ill wind has no howl

(repeat chorus)

“Children of the Sun” (Dead Can Dance)

Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance
Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance

There are days (or lifetimes) when it seems the only proper soundtrack that can, that should linger behind my thoughts will be something dreamed up by Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance.  (Here’s an interview with Lisa Gerrard about their now and their history.)  Last week, I heard Perry’s voice at Open Books in Yellow Springs (thanks, Miriam!) and remembered they had a new CD out, and I bought it.  To me, today, their music seems the only sound big enough to contain the shadows and the light, all of it, everything.  Want proof?  This is good enough for me.