Friday, May 25, 2012

only better

My nephew trains with a circus group. This is a picture of him from their show last week. First-person reports are that this particular action, low-casting, feels "like flying, only better." What I love about this picture is that it captures him in flow, that elusive state we enter and exit in physical performance, that never comes when we seek it. Look at him, totally focussed, totally intense, but absolutely chill, absolutely inside his action.

What to say about the last two months: the real miracle of life is that we can periodically live in the comforting illusion that we are not spinning wildly through space, planets and fire rushing past our heads. Lately it's like some filter has failed and there's more tragedy and glory about than is easy to bear, lives shaken to the core by joy and sorrow at every turn. A new baby. A senseless, random murder. An important debut. A tragic accident. Packing up apartments and moving to other countries, other continents, for money, for love, for another chance. Graduations. First words. Goodbyes.

These things are going on everywhere, all the time, but when there's a cluster near your own head, in your own extended family, it feels significant. That's an illusion. But look, there are your friends, very real, all around you in mid-air.

My sister pointed out the other people in this picture: the instructor with hands extended; another student swinging in the opposite direction, about to fly; another instructor waiting to receive that student; the spotter below, ready to help if necessary.

There are so many ways to learn how to live. Sometimes at the piano and sometimes on my bike, I can escape the dream of solid ground. What a miracle can sometimes be possible, with assistance and protection: within the confines of our human body to discover what we really are, to fly, in spite of fear to reach out with confidence and faith.


Thursday, April 26, 2012


Summer Sundays when I was ten,
I’d sneak downstairs to the new stereo.
The sky was bright, the sun still hidden
behind the neighbor’s house.
I folded my knees against the brief morning chill 
and kept the volume at a whisper,
used the dial like a scalpel:
a squinch to the right, another,
straining to parse the loopy static.
With time I heard the pops and whines
as a jabbering crowd, and I’d choose
a voice, coax it into the room,
listening, listening, tuning again, 
newly, fanatically patient. 
First triumph, tinny music (Marty Robbins). But then:
when I found the big news station from Chicago - Chicago! - 
I gasped and kept my hand on the dial.
Once I heard country music from Oklahoma 
and once a very faint preacher in Nebraska.
This only lasted for a magic hour or so
before the local air began to stir,
Minneapolis muscling in 
with hog futures and weather.
I kept my secret, 
this sacred this time before the light, 
and as the everyday world returned
I knew the way beyond it 
was at the edge of my hearing. 


Wednesday, March 21, 2012


The cardiologist is looking at us strangely because we are staring at him, my sister and mother and I. There is silence where he expected something else - cheers? smiles?

He clears his throat. I mean, it's the most boring echo I've heard today. His heart's in great shape.

Between us, my father slumps in his wheelchair, oxygen tube hooked behind his ears, fragile arms covered in bruises from the falls.

Annie speaks deliberately. We're surprised, you see, because his doctor told us he was dying. Days or weeks.

My father's expression does not change. There are toast crumbs on his sweatpants.

Oh, I don't dispute that. But it's not his heart that's causing his lungs to fill up. You say he's on dialysis?

The doctor flips through my dad's paperwork. He's never seen it before.

I'm not a kidney guy, but geez that's a lot of fluid. He raises his voice to my dad. Bill, are ya getting too much sodium? The food in those nursing homes is always too salty. How much coffee are ya drinking?

My sister continues to ask deliberate, reasonable questions. It's only later that I'll know she felt like I did, that she wanted to scream at the strange doctor talking about valves while being totally unaware that my dad's in end stage renal failure, absolutely unaware that his transplant from thirteen years ago is in the last stages of shutdown. Oh yah, you betcha, he's dying, but it's not his heart, those valves look great.

Is it too much to ask that these doctors have a conversation? The heart guy, the kidney guy, the generalist in our little town? There he sits with his paper, his specialty, his one little answer.

My father, the oxygen, the sweatpants.

My family, another collection of silos across the wide prairie, jealously guarding our stores, disconnected.

We do: driving, calls to the bank, careful questions to the doctor, reminiscing about good times, birthday cake with the grandchildren. We ask about his favorite songs and if there is anyone who should know.

There is no plan. I guess we aren't set up for that either. Scattered, we gather around a disappearing man, each with a separate desire and fear, asking and forgetting to ask. A man without a family, there is no one to know him in his entirety, only a million shards we try to reassemble.

Maybe if we keep trying. Maybe it will be enough.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012


We started walking across the marshy grass to the Retirement Center in fourth grade. Our tiny church was already bursting at the seams in the early seventies from the influx of families either heading toward the small colleges or away from the increasingly complicated cities. The smaller kids could stay in the church for Sunday school, and I envied them for being closer to our parents, the coffee urns, the plates of cookies, the piano and the red hymnals and everything else I loved about Bethel. The patch of undeveloped land between the buildings had a sidewalk part of the way, but then there was the small stretch where your new grown-up heels might sink into the soft earth, threatening to unbalance you, or where spring mud would cling to your pant leg on Easter Sunday, unavoidable muck on your way to the door.

We had our Sunday school classes in a big open area that smelled of food and medicine, at once antiseptic and sweet. Sometimes we sang and the residents gathered, tiny bundles between their wheelchairs and walkers. Some of them smiled as limp and welcoming as old blankets, some stared at invisible scenes, some were drawing near invisibility. At some point I wondered if that was the bargain, some interaction with us in exchange for use of the space. I loved Sunday school but that room bothered me, imagining as I did that there was any choice about it.

There it is in the online video, new tables and chairs and curtains but the same trim halfway up the wall, sidewalks long completed outside the familiar windows (how they let the winter cold in!). Relief floods the top level of my heart: Dad was successfully moved today, and now he will be safe. The last frightening fall in the apartment finally did it. Old soldier, old fool, he hung onto his own space for longer than was prudent, mistake, motivation. Gratitude takes root in the middle of my heart: to him, for finally saying yes, to my brother and sister for helping, to my mom who has done so much more than I realized.

But I haven't spoken with any of them yet, as they've been doing the real work, signing the papers and moving the furniture and letting him chat out his anxiety inside the new walls. I Skype instead with the man whom I still see as her new husband. Is it ten years already? And longer than that, his young family once also part of the little congregation, his son crossing the marshy grass with my sister and me. Something about this combination of things on my screen - the familiarity and strangeness of his face, of those rooms- gets to the bottom of my heart.

I see him through the window in the video, him with his vibrant wife before her long sickness changed and took her. There is my mother impossibly beautiful in her big glasses. Maybe it's spring, and they are out in front of the church after Adult Forum. The pastor with his green stole is there, and the choir director, my teachers, they are all in their leisure suits and macramé vests holding styrofoam cups of coffee and laughing, little kids around their knees like bees or electrons. I can see my father, even at this distance I can see his gestures and hear his voice full of opinion and drive. We middle kids are crossing the pathless field on our way back to them, and there they are, strong and vital, the parents who protect us and and the adults we long to become. The old people are behind me, there is mud on my shoes, and I am crossing back into their world, where everything is possible.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


One saxophone and two guitars in the corner, the face of their master in my iMac. Cold night outside my windows, he's backlit by sun as we talk. A whole family of friends takes their turns saying hello. We are laughing, enjoying the taste and joke of language. a clutch of Schrödinger's Katzen, in two places at once.

Something has shaken loose, something has opened. MtMn is already in America and the apartment is spacious, lonely and sweet. a small portal that is just like life. Through the streets and rehearsal halls of this town, speaking words that succeed and fail to convey what I intend, this life is exactly as it has always been.

I am at home here, I will never belong here. This is the essence of being human. Blessings on all who can know this without traveling and on all who must travel to understand. Wednesday I travel to another version of home, to the embrace of familiar friends, and I will miss this apartment, these streets. And other friends and other streets.

What a privilege, what a gift, this ache.


Saturday, December 31, 2011


I love New Year's Resolutions. It is very much the style to dis them, or to talk about making "real" ones so that you avoid disappointment and failure. I have read several articles on this topic over the last few days. Don't set those big, unbounded goals, like losing weight or quitting smoking, because you are bound to disappoint yourself. Make it manageable, some simple daily goal that you know you can achieve.

Now this is very sensible, to choose something you can and will actually DO. In fact, are not the small daily steps the road to the big, unbounded goal? Seems kind of...obvious...but in any case, yes, bravo, set the easy-to-meet criteria and get going, put one foot in front of the other und so weiter.

But can I just raise my hand and say a few words in defense - nay, in FAVOR - of disappointment and failure (sigh. Are we really grown so afraid of these things)?

I'm an unabashed believer in the big dream, and I believe not on faith but on evidence. Brothers and sisters, I have seen people reinvent their lives over and over again. People start businesses. People quit drinking. People get married, have children, create art, move to new cities, speak in foreign tongues, and then they throw everything in their life up in the air and try something new. They set their sights on a prize far off, and then they move.

And yes, small daily steps are part of that journey. But so are the long vision, the dare, the jump off the cliff into the unknown. And so are failure and disappointment.

One of the many great things that performing can teach you is this: error is part of learning. We spend all kinds of time in practice rooms learning our music. And then, when we start staging rehearsals, all kinds of musical mistakes get made. As new information comes in, and as new skills are put together, details get temporarily dropped. It's not a clean process. The messiness is part of the learning - it IS the learning.

Performers screw up. Parents do too, children, friends, colleagues, everybody. You resolve to do something and then you don't do it. But are you maybe just in the middle of learning how?

It's a new, shiny year, which is of course just a made-up boundary. Make yourself some promises and dream yourself some dreams, and don't misunderstand success to be something so small that a little momentary heartbreak can kill it. Get out there and mess something up, cry over the spilled milk. There is such reward waiting over there, past whatever boundary you've made up, wherever you imagine is too far.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Kinds of Blue

Freezing fog, gorgeous from my window, shrouds the glowing city. The Stefansdom spire lost in the mist, the unlit Christmas lights strung over the Kärntnerstrasse, the steps to the Albertina painted like the Monet waterlilies, everything blurs in the watery air. People are wrapped in down coats with furry hoods, or maybe they didn't plan and so hurry by with their hands shoved in their pockets and their scarves wrapped high over their ears. I was in the latter group last winter, but now I'm strolling with the former, on my way home through the cold night, snacking on the icy air and still tasting the horn solos Paul dished out in the warm little club.

He played the blues tonight, a group of guys joyously rocking the tunes, laughing and smiling and joking the sad lyrics. "Glück im Unglück", said my colleague a few days ago, not speaking of the blues. She was talking about a friend jumping into the last opera in our Ring cycle. Too bad about the friend who had to cancel, but oh how glorious the substitute. She brought down the house (a little opera pun there for my geek friends). The orchestra was detailed and monumental, grand under the famous conductor, one of the best in the world, and we were all in the Loge to weep at the beauty of it and to cheer.

And since then I have felt a little sad. Not the scary sadness, but, well, blue. I met the beautiful substitute ten years ago, at another opera house. There was also a great orchestra there, under the leadership of a great conductor. The Rings I had the pleasure of working on there were life-changing for me. The first ones came when we were newish in New York, still missing Seattle but starting to get the hang of things. The community aspect of working on the Ring (Wagnerians are a clannish bunch) was such a part of becoming rooted in the city and in my job. That house, and that conductor, were an arrival point for me, a seminal part of my professional life. Now that era is coming to an end, as all eras must. But that's been just an idea to me. Something about being in the presence of another truly great Ring this week made the penny drop for me: the first important era of my grownup professional life is past.

Digging a bit deeper, past work, it's simpler: those people are still incredibly important to me, and I miss them. There's the second shade of blue tonight, passing my subway stop, turning onto my street, past the Apotheke, the Altwaren shop, the Mittelschule, in other words, my neighborhood.

Home. A complex little word, that.

It's easy to identify the stresses of moving. Everything's new: the job, the apartment, the people, the language, the habits. Learning all the new info is hard. But there's another part. I believe some of that first year suffering is your whole self dragging its feet as you try to adjust, denying and refusing the whole way, because it knows better than you that you're about to lose something.

My new Ring family made me long for the old one. Jazzland tonight made me miss the OK Hotel. Siggy's guitar playing makes me hear Ken. Glasergasse in the cold is so far away from the warm nights on Thornton Road.

Vienna is full of friends and familiarity and warmth now, but that means that another set of relationships and loves has receded. I've done this before, and I know that I get to keep more than I lose. But tonight, turning my key in the lock of my door, entering my home at the end of a day filled with people and music, I hope it does no disservice to anyone here if I allow myself a cup of tea and a slightly melancholy blogpost. So much other music and so many other people are on my heart.