According to WordPress, three years ago today, I set out on this blogging adventure! To better share my experiences, my stories, my thoughts with my small (but big enough to be overly cumbersome to call every time I have something clever to say) group of friends and family.  Have I figured out the whole posting on a regular basis thing?  Well no – but clever doesn’t happen on a schedule you know.  Have I succeeded in creating entertaining and/or intriguing posts anyways?  Well, I’ve succeeded in getting you to read this far, haven’t I…

But I digress.  When I went about starting a blog initially, I had a slightly different goal in mind than my currently posted “raison-d’etre”. Originally, this blog was supposed to be a place to share my writing portfolio. And yet, somewhere between college and life happening, I never did get around to sharing any of my writing (blog posts notwithstanding as part of this predetermined portfolio). Luckily, my friend Oliver over at Literature and Libation has given me a reason to address this lamentable oversight, with a friendly short-story competition.  The mission?  To delve back in our writer’s notebooks and pick out a story that was, in some version or stage, document-ably written in longhand. (Check – all my stuff starts out as longhand.  There’s just something about writing with a good pen that cannot be denied. Just lemme grab my camera.)  It must be short.  (Well, that narrows down the choices significantly.)  Like 300 to 1200 words short.  (Ah yes – there go a few more.  And poetry doesn’t really count right? Well alright.) And I had to post it on here. (Check – see below.)

Well, the good news is I did settle on a piece worth sharing. Way down in the depths of my notebooks was a set of pieces I called “snapshots”. Back when I was trying my hand at writing never-quite-as-short-as-I-imagined stories and coercing my family into side careers as personal literary critics – I had something of a creativity problem.  Perfectly lovely characters would wander into my head fully formed that were at once utterly charming, and also completely unworkable into the story at hand.  I was, however, totally unwilling to loose them simply because I was busy with some other character’s story.  So I would jot down a moment or scene that caught the essence of that character – a creativity calling card if you will.  Just enough to be able to jog my mind at some later point about the particulars of this character and why they were special.  I totally meant to call them back sooner.  Really I did.

Well, I’ve since happily realized that these “snapshots” do in fact count as short stories.  So – here for your reading pleasure is one of those stories now – just a little polished up since that original draft.  I hope you enjoy!

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Bereavement’s Brew

The cup of coffee in her hands was cold, but she wasn’t interested in drinking it.  Her thumb worried the beginning of a crack in the enamel, like a child discovering a loose tooth. It steadied her hands to have something to hold onto.

Her body was telling her it was late. She had a vague sense of the clock on the wall ticking away the hours she’d been there. She’d tracked the moments internally, from the fatigue ebbing into her bones, to the restless distraction settling in, to the looming silence – all of which slowly ate away at her metal paralysis. Her body was telling her with simpering urgency to move, just move, but had as of yet failed to sufficiently address her mind’s singular rebuttal – where to?

Three days.  She’d been living without him, not knowing he’d died, for three whole days.  She’d been certain things were normal.  Slept the nights through.  Dreamt of that now fictitious date on the calendar when they’d be reunited. And then today, that damn dreaded knock at the door.  Two perfect strangers had helped her into this chair when she’d lost control of her knees.  The same men that brought her the damn cup of coffee.  But as soon as she opened the door, time had frozen. She’d swear to still being at the door… if not for the cup of coffee.

Three days, and now… eternity.

In slow deliberate movements, she dropped the cup of coffee in the sink, and proceeded to the sofa.  Grabbing a blanket, she bunked down for the night.  And as she lay there, gazing at the ceiling that led to the room she dare not see again, she prayed for sleep.  But in the morning, all there was to remember – to forget – were the tears.

It was the sun that woke her from a fretful dozing.  The house was momentarily empty – the phone still pulled from the jack.  In a resigned, automated pace, she began her normal routine. But throughout the once comforting familiar, her mind was conducting a cruel sort of frantic search.  With numb determination, she was searching her world for some fragment of him that lingered. But after two years away, nothing seemed to speak of him anymore.  He didn’t seem to exist in the walls or in the cup of coffee she was clutching again.  His clothes just barely smelled of him, but there was no use smelling anything while crying, so she abandoned them where they lay.  She dared not turn on a radio – he’d loved too many songs on it – for fear of losing all control.

And then, there was only one door left to open. One final stop on the search. Reverently, she turned the knob, allowing the darkness to spill out into the general light of the hallway.  Crossing the floor, she opened the curtains and turned to face the nest  of a room he’d called his study.  This place – this place still spoke of him.  Running her hand across his big roll-top desk, she took the room in.  It remained unchanged from the last time he’d been in here, penning one last chapter before departing.

Blinking back fresh tears, she turned to face the desk – heavy, solid, and still. Slowly lifting the lid, she sank into a seat and began rifling through the papers strewn in front of her absentmindedly – taking comfort in his handwriting, his art.

Amidst the normal paperwork, she found a single sheet that caught her eye – almost by chance. As she dared to read on, it took her breath away. It was a letter he’d begun for her before leaving.

“To my most loved – In case you miss me while I’m gone…”

——————

(Word Count – 621)

Want to join in on the fun yourself?  Check out the rules, regs, etc. here: Writing Contest – Longhand Fiction.  Deadline to enter is Monday, so get a move on already!  🙂

Yesterday marked the two-week mark since my grandmother passed away.

That’s both a really easy sentence to write (because it’s all encompassing and succinct) and a terribly hard one to leave on the page (because it’s totally inadequate). That week following her passing is a blur of emotions in my mind. I can remember the events as discrete happenings and reflect on the emotions in isolation – but I’m not removed enough from the experience to take it inany semblance of a linear or sequential manner yet.  I’ll get there – it just takes time.  But there is one moment from the planning and traveling and services and all that I do remember with a good deal of clarity:

As the funeral arrangements were being made, I felt compelled to make some contribution. I couldn’t help chip in for flowers or the costs, as a broke college student.  I was too far away at the time to be there with the people having to make those decisions.  But I desperately wanted to help – but what could I offer? Without even pausing to consider the multitudes of ways people participate in a funeral, I asked to be able to play something at the funeral mass, if the church would allow it. It was a natural choice – like asking to turn on the lights.

Of course I had doubts after offering.  I doubted whether the music director would want to put up with a stranger making changes to the standard programming.  I doubted whether I could remain composed enough to make it through this kind of performance. I doubted that I had any repertoire that was funeral appropriate (I didn’t) or that I would be able to work a new piece up in time. But I never doubted that my offer to play was the absolute right thing for me to do. The rest was all logistics.

My grandmother loved to hear me play. It was a connection that we had shared since I first seriously started pursuing my studies on bassoon.  She gave me my grandfather’s instrument to play and told me stories about his days as a bassoonist.  She had made it out to as many of my college concerts as schedules would allow. She always encouraged me to bring my bassoon along to practice when I came to visit. She loved hearing me play, so I was going to play.

The very first song that came to mind given the circumstances was “Amazing Grace”.  I’ve heard it played for memorials and funerals before (generally on bagpipe or piano), and have always thought that it was a powerful piece of music. But I didn’t want to play it straight out of a hymnal – somehow, that wasn’t good enough in my mind. When none of the music I already owned or knew fit the bill, I turned to the internet – and just by chance, ran into this arrangement for bassoon of Amazing Grace by Rich Heffler.  It had just a hint of jazz influence, a lilting little transitional melody, and a couple fly-by-night key modulations… It was doable and it made me think of her.  It was kind of perfect – so I bought it and pulled a few strings to have it in-hand before the funeral.

I rehearsed exactly twice with the pianist – one true rehearsal and once the morning of.  It was just enough time to make it abundantly clear to me that (1) this piece was well within my capabilities as a bassoonist, but (2) I would likely be glad this wasn’t a graded performance. I knew my emotions were running on high and I might not make it through without having to stop – but that was the gamble I was going to take. Even so, I was nervous.

I remember walking up to the chair set out for me and taking a deep breath as I got everything adjusted and prepared to play. I let the moment rest on my shoulders for a second, gathering my thoughts and saying a silent prayer for help through the next three minutes of my life. I glanced quickly out at the church – at my family in the front rows and the coffin beautifully presented in front of the altar – made my silent dedication to my grandmother and felt the wave of emotion that I had been so nervous about hit me. But it wasn’t overwhelming.  I’d made my peace with the fact that this wasn’t going to be a perfect performance I’d be offering up. This was a moment between me and my grandmother that I was going to be sharing with my family. And so I played.

And, no – it wasn’t perfect. I did start to cry before the song ended. Honestly, I don’t remember much about the performance after about the 20th bar or so because I was fighting to play through my own emotional response to the music. I remember focusing on the mechanics of the music after a certain point – just making sure my pitch remained centered and the resolution of suspensions lined up with the harmony change from the piano and holding back on triplet passages I knew had rushed in practice. The training I’d cultivated over the last four years took over while the rest of my brain scrambled to maintain some semblance of order (and control my breath support so I could keep playing). It wasn’t perfect, but I played it through to the end.  And that was enough.

It was, by far, the most cathartic performance I have ever given. I truly felt like I had “left it all on the stage”. But my response was not the part of this experience that has struck me the most profoundly.  It was the audience’s response. There was not a sound to be heard in the church as the final note of the piece faded away. I’d played for the part of the mass known as the “Meditation” (which comes after the Communion as everyone is given a chance to reflect and pray)… and the audience’s mental presence was looming in the silence – warm, but impenetrable. I just quietly made my way back to the pew where my family was sitting, and then the priest commenced with the rest of the ceremony. But a few minutes into his closing prayer, my siblings took hold of my hands –  just to silently offer their love and support. And throughout the rest of the days events, people stopped by briefly to look me in the eye and say, “Thank you” or “She would have loved it.”

I’ve talked to my students a lot about the power that music has to communicate with all people, without language – to motivate them to action or inspire them to think or bind them to a cause or envelop them in an emotion…. It’s not the perfection of the performance or the “apt-ness” of the repertoire choices – it’s something even more basic, more intangible about music that makes the connection. And suddenly, I found myself in the perfect example of what I have been trying to discuss with my class:

I spoke to everyone gathered in the church that day, without ever saying a word. What I said and how profoundly was different for each individual – but because I shared my gift for music and my own emotions at that moment so honestly – it offered a small measure of solace to the pain we all had in common. They weren’t saying, “Thank you for a superior musical performance,” – they were saying, “Thank you for playing. For sharing that moment with us.”  They were saying, “I understand.”  And that, my friends, is a powerful compliment to receive. It was the first time in a long time I felt like a real musician again… after a number of years tying my worth as a musician to the “correctness” of my performance and as a result fighting my own personal sense of worthlessness as a performer… I finally truly reconnected with why I love to perform.  The whole reason I’m a musician in the first place: Even when it isn’t perfect, music connects people.

It’s been two weeks since my grandmother died, and one week since I graduated from college.  But her final gift to me is one I won’t soon forget: My grandmother helped me to walk across that stage as a whole musician again – both an educator AND a performer in my own right.

So here’s the scene: I’m sitting on the floor of my bedroom in the apartment, staring at the graduation robe I have hung on the back of my door.  I’m keenly aware of the fact that I’ve been sitting here too long, and there are other things to be done, and yet I am captivated.  I’ve had enough foresight to pull it out of the plastic packaging so that it won’t be wrinkled when I don it in a little over a week and a half… and yet… here I am, sitting on my bedroom floor – completely unsure what it is doing there.  Or if I even want it there.  I should be getting on with my day, and yet I’m stuck.

I do know I am graduating on the 17th.  It’s been my mantra for the last month.  But not because I was excitedly counting down to it – like so many of my friends that are graduating alongside me.  It’s been my mantra, because it doesn’t seem real yet, and that bothers me.  It’s not at all like high school – that wild surge of excitement propelling you through those final classes, making it hard to study and hard to stop talking about it.  I know I am graduating.  I just haven’t felt it yet.

I mean… at some point, this thing has to become real.  Right?

Why can’t I accept this huge success that is staring me in the face?  17 years in the making… and in just a short time, I am going to walk across the stage a college graduate.  With honors.  So, why do I suddenly feel so… unaccomplished?

Maybe it’s the fact that I am in job market limbo for the moment.  Applications are in, references are lined up – now I can only wait for a bite and an interview.  It’s super surreal… moving so fast towards the end of one chapter in my life, with no real idea of the when, where, and how of the next chapter will be.

Maybe it’s been all the goodbyes that have taken place over the past couple weeks. Standing in awe of the amazing groups of people in my life right now – and being so totally unsure of how much longer our trajectories will be headed in the same direction.  And not wanting to forget anything.  Or to let go just yet.  But knowing both are going to happen whether I want to or not… so for the moment, I’ve got to enjoy the time that I’ve got with them.

Maybe it’s because the “student” part of my college career really ended in December.  I’ve essentially been working all semester – the same work I will be doing (God willing) for years and years to come.  My senior year experience wasn’t like the one being had by the majority of the graduates that will be taking the stage in a week and a half… No term paper stress.  No spontaneous study parties.  For an entire semester, I’ve been “on-location”, immersed in a real world classroom – putting all my classroom accumulated knowledge to use.  Maybe, mentally, I’ve already commenced with the rest of my life.

But it would be nice though… one of these mornings, to look up at those robes on my door – and feel that spark of excitement for graduation.  And maybe it will take until the 17th.  Maybe, just maybe, by then it will be real.  Till then, I’ve got to get up off this floor – because I’m not graduating today… and there’s still plenty of work to be done in the meantime.

End scene.

As kids, we are warned about that far-off day where we will find it necessary to take life by the horns and really set our own course for the future.  Everything up until that day, we are told, is just preparation for that dubious specter: “the real world”.  You’d think with graduation only two months away or my strong “plan-it-ahead” tendencies, I would have seen that day coming – and yet, here I am… only just realized that the day has, for all intents and purposes, arrived.  Why hello adulthood!

I’ve spent my weekends over the last month plane-hopping across the country to various job fairs – in hopes of getting a leg up on the market… either by way of gaining more information about where the jobs were to be had or by mere practice of being in the jobs race.  And I have learned a lot.  For example – no one is particularly interested in hiring music teachers at this stage of the game, because their budgets aren’t finalized yet.  Music teachers are still pretty low on the hiring totem poles.  I’ve also learned how to land an interview, in spite of this fact.  I’ve learned that an interview with an administrator or principal from a school is more organic and answer driven than one given by an HR rep for a school district – unless the HR rep happens to also be a member of your field of specialty.  I’ve gained countless moments of practice watering down the “music” in a conversation on music education so that my examples speak more clearly to non-musicians; and conversely, how to emphasize the educational techniques in those same conversations with music educators.  I’ve learned that although there is a lot of waiting in lines at these job fairs, you are only as alone/bored/unoccupied as you want to be – because every single person around me was willing and interested in talking about their experience in the field and offer their insights on job prospects in various counties.

These were all realizations I had anticipated coming across in one form or another during my travels.  But after my final fair, as the interview fatigue was starting to set in and I was ready to avoid finding myself in any queue of people until graduation… I realized something entirely unexpected:  In all likelihood, I was going to have options at the end of this jobs race.  And I was totally unprepared to make that kind of decision.

And I don’t mean that in a totally cocky, self-important kind of way.  But I’d just spent several weekends doing preliminary job interviews for any and all music openings that were anticipated in three states.  I’d purposely put no limits on the jobs I was willing to talk about.  I was, quite honestly, interested in a job… any job.  Elementary, middle, high school, instrumental, general, choir – I’ve sat through initial interviews for all of them.  But four job fairs later, I realize that it is a waste of my time and that of my perspective employers for me to approach the next step of the job application process in the same manner.  I can’t, as an applicant, completely depend on the market to shape my future.

Somewhere between all the news reports about the abysmal state of the economy and my own single-mindedness in broadening my portfolio to make myself a more attractive employment candidate, I’d bought into the idea that I would need to avoid all limits in the jobs race in order to have a chance at landing a job.  But that’s not really the case.

I guess this realization really took hold after I had a rather… unconventional interview with a charter school principal.  His school was only offering a part-time music position (4 days a week with a modest salary), and although I definitely am shooting for a full-time position, I wasn’t going to shut any doors available to me.  As we were chatting about the position, he was very candid about the limitations of the position and the unlikelihood of it ever having the funding boost to be transformed into a full-time gig… he gave me an opportunity at that point to amicably walk away from the interview and seek out another district with a position closer to what I was looking for.  And yet – I couldn’t walk away from the interview… I continued to approach it with the same enthusiasm and interest I had all of the full-time positions, because I was unwilling to close a door without seeing it through.  A few questions later, he brought the session to a close and offered me some honest advice, “Look, you should go and talk to some of these other districts instead of me.  You’re going to land a full-time position.  And if you don’t have one by July, come back and talk to me again.”  I smiled, thanked him for his time and card, and walked off… slightly confused at how it all had ended.  I mean technically speaking, I’d gotten my first job offer… sort of.

I’d never considered my own worth as a candidate for employment.  Sure, I knew the merits of my training program from the university, the depth of knowledge garnered from my field experiences in various classroom settings, and my philosophy on the importance of music education.  I knew I could speak education-ese with…well, with ease; and educational goals for programs of all shapes and sizes.  I knew how to appeal to what an employer would want.

But I’d never thought seriously or with any real conviction about the kind of program I wanted.

I wasn’t certain about where I saw myself teaching six months from now – let alone in five years!  Even the most basic details (like an instrumental vs. choral program) I had waffled on for one interview or another for fear of closing a door too soon.  In an interest of being “open” and “flexible” to what the market had to offer, I also wasn’t advocating for a job that would put me in a position to optimize my talents either.  I was preparing myself to cast a net that was too big to handle, once I went to submit applications for all these positions.

So, here’s what I’ve come to realize over the past couple days:  I’m a catch (despite what I apparently think from time to time).  I really have done all the work necessary to make myself a strong candidate for a job.  Period.  But this work was focused and driven, and so, my job ambitions should reflect that momentum.  Vision is not a limitation but a discerning agent – it will separate the “opportunities” from the “offers” I come across in this race to employment.  Flexibility is desirable, but it becomes a limitation when it lacks the structure provided by vision.

In the next two months, that’s my self-imposed homework.  I need to take all this flexibility I have been demonstrating; and then, armed with the full scope of my education and training – as well as my new found knowledge of what the job market looks like – make some serious decisions about what I feel most qualified to teach, what experiences I’ve enjoyed the most over the last four years, what is and isn’t negotiable, and most importantly of all: what I want to be doing in six months.

I had to write a short autobiographical essay at the end of last semester, to give my supervising teachers an idea of who I was and how I found myself pursuing a degree in education.  Not entirely sure I ended up writing an essay… Not entirely sure I hit all the points I was supposed to either, but to be fair, they weren’t enumerated.  Total stab in the dark.  Also, it’s a rather long story to tell, from my perspective… so this is more a snapshot than anything.  It feels rather like a blog post to me… but I make no apologies! (Only a handful of half-explanations). Anyways, given it’s blog-i-ness, I decided you all might find it an enjoyable read as well.  So here goes!  (To clarify, I only added the title later.)

On Education… Or Rather, How I got Here:

In my family, education is taken seriously.  This isn’t really a surprise, when you look at how many of my relatives became teachers at some point in their lives.  I was always expected to take ownership of my own education.  If I didn’t understand something, I was taught to ask questions, or go out and research it on my own.  If I wasn’t being challenged by my coursework, I was expected to ask for one.  If I saw someone struggling with a topic I understood, I was taught to lend a hand.  What this taught me more than anything, was to approach learning as a collaboration between the student and the teacher.  For me, school never came down to the accumulation of grades – it was always about what I had learned and whether or not I had given it my best effort.  This in turn, made being a part of the learning process something that I truly loved.  When it came time to consider what major I wanted pursue in college, teaching was an option that I took some time getting to – but once I did, it felt like the natural choice.  I chose music education, because music was something I enjoyed immensely and something that always challenged me to do better.  It provided me with the opportunity to work with people and to grow in a field I loved.

Over the course of my studies in college, I have been asked again and again what are the most important qualities in a teacher.  For me, it comes down to a couple big points:

1) concern for the individual learner, 2) passion for the subject, and 3) honesty of opinion.

Since I was raised to view learning as a collaborative process, I believe strongly that education is about the development of the individual.  Education is most effective when it is tied to developing a student’s curiosity about a subject, rather than discrete facts and figures they need to remember.  We, as teachers, should aim to set the groundwork for life-long learning in our classrooms.  This process starts when students are treated as individuals – not only in their interests and challengs with learning, but in their accountability in the classroom as well.  Thinking back to the most effective teachers I had throughout my learning career, the ones I remember best share a single, defining attribute that set them apart:  these teachers were passionate about their subject area.  Even more than that though, that passion for the subject spilled over into their desire to share it with their students.  Passionate teachers make for an infectiously exciting atmosphere in the classroom, because students want to understand what could possibly make the topic so interesting.  Passionate teachers are also involved with their subject area outside of the classroom, which provides an example for students for learning beyond the confines of school.  Finally, and most importantly in my experience, honesty of opinion is crucial to teaching.  Because learning is a collaborative process for me, continually working towards a deeper understanding of the subject, the expertise and guidance of the teacher becomes something that is both required and counted on.  An honest appraisal of growth is counted on by the student – as a checkpoint to refine future efforts and add perspective to past work.  This critique should be approached constructively – in order to respect the learning that has already occurred, and still create momentum towards future learning.

I have had experience working with children for as long as I can remember.  As the middle of five kids in my family, I grew up surrounded by opportunities to learn from and teach to a variety of age groups.  My siblings and I would make a sport of bouncing ideas off each other – parrying new perspectives and defenses until our knowledge of the subject was exhausted.  My family was also active for years in the Girl Scouts, and so I had the opportunity to grow into a leadership position in my troop – teaching subjects as I mastered them in a very safe environment.  In school, I quickly learned that my understanding of myself as a learner and independent interest in learning also made me an ideal study buddy.  I sought out opportunities to help my classmates understand lessons that didn’t make sense to them; my philosophy being that if I could explain the material to someone else, then I had learned it thoroughly enough.  Then, when I came to college, my teaching experiences became a built-in component of my education.  And although these experiences are generally focused on my formal development as a teacher and so had an element of intensity, the base experience of working with children always felt comfortably familiar.

I would say that the biggest challenge facing me in student teaching is making that mental switchover from student to teacher.  I have been a student for so long that it is sometimes hard to think of myself as an “expert” in anything, and I have always equated the teacher in a classroom with being the expert.  College has redefined the relationship between those two words for me – I still believe that a teacher is an “expert”, but I now understand that in the classroom the term does not refer to a definitive state of knowledge, but rather a relative one.  You do not have to be done learning in order to teach, you simply have to know the material well enough to convey it to others who come from a myriad of different backgrounds.  Some ideas just never fade away entirely, I guess.

“College is about growing.”

A group of soon-to-be sophomores were asking a good friend of mine for some survival tips for college not too long ago, and this was the advice he offered them.  He went on to explain that they would always be encountering new opportunities in college, and they shouldn’t be afraid to pursue them.  Through those experiences, they’d discover the true boundaries of  who they are. I’m still of the opinion that it’s a brilliantly apt way of answering their question.

I’ve reached that point in my college career where people are starting to refer to the whole experience in the past tense – a phenomenon I find amusing, simply because I’m still so engrossed in the remaining hurdles, I hadn’t thought to look up and see the finish line approaching.  And yet, every time I encounter that question “How does it feel to be a college senior?” that piece of advice from my friend always seems to come to mind.

So, how does it feel to be a college senior?

Honestly, I feel a little… old… around the edges these days.  And I mean that in the most positive way possible!  When I take a moment to reflect back on my time in college, the first impression that comes to me is how far I’ve come.  I’m not the same person I was almost four years ago – excitedly looking to soak in every experience this campus had to offer me.  I was ready to learn – to meet people, have my ideas challenged, get into debates, be persuaded or do the persuading – I wanted to grow!  I think back on that person, and the image that comes to mind is a lightbulb – bright and unfocused light.  And then I get the film reel version of the years that followed – the highs, the lows, the amazing achievements and unexpected disappointments; the people and places and situations that got me to right here and right now.  These days, my enthusiasm is more driven – doggedly molded both by the knowledge I’ve come to make my own and the life experiences that surrounded it.  I’ve begun to harness all that intellectual energy and pour it into a craft; to take ownership of my knowledge – to move from wrangling the ideas of others and move towards creating ideas of my own.  I feel ready to move on; and by the same token, acutely aware of how much I do not yet know.  I’m not far enough away from the feeling yet to have an image to describe it yet, but I feel more methodical, more focused but still driven by that same ceaseless momentum.

Someone said once that you’d know you’ve begun to really learn when you begin to see the boundaries of your knowledge and the vastness of your ignorance: “the more knowledgeable you become, the more you understand how little you know”.  I’m sure they said it more elegantly than I, but it paints the most honest picture of “being a college senior” I know.  I know so much more than I used to – about education, and music, and myself.  And yet, all I can think is… look at how far there is still to go.  And instead of that being an exhausting or terrifying realization – it’s exhilarating!

So perhaps that’s what “being a college senior” feels like – a kinsmanship with the uncertain; an ever present sense of adventure about learning; a tremulous dance between the known and unknown.  The certainty that I am not at the end of my journey by any means – I’ve really only just begun.

So, to all my friends just starting out on their college journeys… from applications to orientation and the first day of classes:

Welcome to College – it’s time to grow.

I don’t often write about music.  At least, not outside the confines of academia these days; I find this fact  two-parts intriguing, one part puzzling.  As far as topics I can wax eloquently on, music has to be among my top three.  In terms of a developed knowledge base, I know music is at the top of my list.  And if experience is to be trusted (though my audience is almost always other musicians, so “unbiased” might be a bit of a stretch), it is a topic I can speak to with a good dose of humor and insight.  It is, after all, a topic I have invested a good deal of time and energy in; and writing about music would seem a natural meeting of two of my great creative passions: music making and writing.  So… why the reticence?

Well, it’s a two part dilemma for me, I guess.

Part One – At this point in my life, music isn’t something I just DO anymore… After three years of (mostly) concentrated study at the university level, music is what I eat, sleep, and breathe.  Seriously.  When I’m at school, I study music, hang out with musicians, talk/discuss/argue music, and then, once I’m finished with classes – head off to participate in the musical organizations I am a member of (ensemble and/or professional) or to practice or to work on a music-related paper.  (Because these days, ALL of my papers end up being music related – even when they don’t have to be.  Case in point – freshman year had a paper on “Epidemics”.  Clearly historical or science based, right? Wrote a lengthy essay about how music was being used as an educational/awareness aid by the medical communities fighting AIDS in Uganda… Pick a word, any word – and I can relate it to music… Probably.)

Anyways, it wasn’t that long ago that I used to be a much more Renaissance-Man-esque.  In high school, I loved the well-rounded-ness of my education.  There was something about every subject that I liked passionately – and foreseeable could have pursued professionally, had I felt them anything more than enjoyable.  But I decided that I was going to pursue studying something that I loved.  Something that got me out of bed in the morning.  And from the things that fell into this category, I chose music – and that is a decision I very, very rarely regret.  But I do miss my other interests.  It’s not like they’ve gone anywhere – I still like to do math proofs, and could whip up a kick-ass lab report given half the chance, and still do annotate the things I”m reading in my head – but they aren’t what I do anymore.  They are skill sets that are getting dusty, and have been set aside while I make room for all the new knowledge I’ve been acquiring.

Writing this blog has kind of become my proxy for all of those skills – it’s a way of reassuring my subconcious that I still have all of those interests outside of music, just lying in wait for my rediscovery of a thing called “free-time”.  So the last thing I want to do when I settle down to just write and express myself, is to synthesize and analyze and try to fit into words all this stuff I am doing with music these days.  Bleh.  That’s for my non-writing time.

Part Two – I’ve always kind of had a love-hate relationship with music, which makes writing about music itself difficult – in that it’s rarely a cut-and-dry subject for me.  For example: I love performing, but I hate being the soloist.  I am very much a different player when playing with an ensemble than when I have to play on my own – technical, musical, you name it.  It’s weird and a phenomena I cannot explain, and in general, incredibly frustrating to deal with when the majority of my evaluation as a musician (at the moment) is based upon my abilities as a solo performer.

But the love-hate goes a little deeper than a tendency to play devil’s advocate.  Music was something I took for granted for the longest time, in a lot of ways.  Up through my junior year of high school, I was utterly convinced there was no way I would be able to pursue music and make a living that I could survive on – just couldn’t happen.  It took a few sternly supportive lectures from my parents and hours of research into different options in music careers, but eventually I straightened out that point of view.  More significantly, however, I took it for granted that I wasn’t any good at music.  It didn’t matter that I placed well in seating auditions, had strong enough musical instincts to lead others, or that music was something I couldn’t imagine my life without.  It wasn’t even something that any of my music instructors had ever mentioned to me – ever!  And yet… I was convinced.  Not that I thought I was bad, persay… just never good enough.

This belief was a little more insidious, and took a lot more cajoling from my parents to trust 1) the input I’d always received from my myriad of musical directors, 2) them and that they wouldn’t lie to me to soothe my ego, and 3) my gut.  It was on a leap of faith that I started my freshman year as a music major.  I always describe that moment when I decided to be a music educator as a huge weight being lifted from my shoulders.  It was like my soul had let out a sigh of relief.  I hadn’t even taken one day of training as a music educator, and already I felt like I belonged, because I knew myself and was trusting that knowledge.

This new-found faith has been both the stronghold and the anchor of my last three years.  At times, my confidence that this is where I want to be and who I want to be is unshakable (generally this is when I am in front of a class, teaching what I know best – a completely exhilarating experience); and at others, those same questions come back: I am good, but in our world – with this economy is “good”… good enough?

Anyways, to wrap up a rather lengthy tangent: Writing is something I do out of the pure pleasure of smith-ing words into beautiful and awe-ful ideas.  At this moment in my life, applying writing to music (outside of the academic) is too complicated to be a pleasure.  The words find themselves largely stuck in my head – because none seem to speak to the situation properly.  And instead of fighting with my pen, I allow it to explore other avenues of creativity.  I have faith that one day my two loves will collide – in a fury of paper and ink.  Until then, I’m happy to sit here… sketching out ideas, educating myself about music, and puzzling the deeper side of things.

There’s something about getting a batch of new music that never changes… even when that “new” music is pretty old.

This summer, I inherited a bunch of my Grandfather’s old music things that he had filed away ages ago.  The box had a little bit of everything – a pitch pipe, contraptions for drawing staves on a chalk board, old assignments (with teacher commentary included), programs, scripts, choir music, bassoon music, chamber music… and much to my surprise, conductor scores and catalogs for a few high school pieces.  My Grandmother felt that I, as a music education major, would be able to put some of this to good use.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to receive the box… It was a little bit like Christmas had come 7 months early for me.  Seems a little silly I suppose, to get all worked up about a box of old music, but not only is this full of great resources for me to add to my personal music library, but it’s a very real connection to my Grandfather that I didn’t have the opportunity to explore while he was alive.

Sorting through the papers, I can’t help but smile.  I never knew my Grandfather as a musician.  I’d only really begun studying bassoon the year he died… so while he always shared his love of music with me, it wasn’t a focal point in our relationship.  After his death, I learned that he’d studied bassoon and played with local ensembles up until retirement.  It wasn’t until I began my music education studies I realized I had even more to learn: that (1) he’d double majored in music education and military science in college, (2) he’d worked briefly as a public school music teacher, and part of his requirements for that job was to perform regularly in a chamber ensemble, (3) while stationed in Japan, he stepped in as a rehearsal conductor for his regiment’s band when the director was replaced.

I love discovering new stories about my Grandfather, the musician.  And this box of music is a very tangible connection with that part of his life.  As I’m wrapping up my studies, it’s great to get a glimpse into what my world would have looked like 40-50 years ago – not only what is different, but what is very much the same.  In our field, kids are kids and music is music: innovation is happening all the time, and yet the basics have been structured the same way for centuries.  We are a field steeped in history, and at the same time, in a state of constant evolution.  After putting in nearly four years of hard work and all the excitement and disillusionment that entails, it was immensely encouraging to see that my Grandfather also tended to write  “dubiously ambitious” bass lines in his four-part counter point;  jotted down the same quick checks for clarinet embouchure problems; wrote notes in the margins of solo pieces to himself.  I felt, in that moment, very much un-alone in my experiences – a very real connection that reached beyond simple commiseration with my classmates.  “This is just our field,” it told me, “and you are on track.”

There’s something magical about getting a box of new music… something that just speaks to the cockles of your soul.  And sometimes, those are the cockles you didn’t even realize needed a talking to in the first place.

***Disclaimer: I am a strongly spiritual person, but not necessarily a very good religious one.  I view faith as a personal relationship with God – and religion as man’s tool for developing that connection.  I identify with the spiritual teachings of the Catholic Church, but I cannot guarantee that the Church would view my beliefs as completely kosher.  (I’m pretty sure they’d be mostly ok with this one.)  That being said, the following post is about my beliefs, not necessarily my Church’s.  Also, I approach my faith with a good dose of humor.  Thus far, God has yet to complain about it to me.***

When I was growing up, Lent meant two things: 1) Tomato soup and sardine sandwiches for dinner Friday and 2) It was time to pick something to do without for the next 40 days.  And, in my efforts to be a young, devout Catholic, I did indeed pick things that seemed plausible to do without for a whole month (and a bit): Chocolate, soda, junk food…  Which I gave up with varying amounts of success.  The thing to consider about this varying degrees of success was that I had a highly acute sense of guilt during the Lenten season as a child.  And the funniest part was that this had absolutely nothing to do with the ways in which my family observed Lent at all.  It was instead due to the fact that in my young mind, I had made a PACT with God, to not do this thing for a whole 40 days, in his honor… and then proceeded to break it.  Not only had I broken a solemn pact to God (ruining any credibility I had with the Guy), but I’d also disrespected him.  God, back then, was clearly a lot more frightening and somewhat unyielding in his judgements about the capabilities of 8 year olds.  My family’s response on the other hand?  “Oh, that’s ok – it happens.  Start fresh tomorrow.”

Well, it wasn’t long before giving something up for Lent just wasn’t doing it for me anymore… because even back then, I was a precocious and questioning little Catholic.  I wondered if God really cared about my eating habits for that one month – I mean, I really only cared when I realized I had messed up, and I was the one not eating stuff for Him.  I learned that instead of being synonymous with fasting, “Lent” actually has roots in a word meaning “Spring”.  So, with a little helpful nudging from my parents, I started picking things I wanted to change during lent: keeping a clean room, avoiding fighting with my sisters…  The goal now was not to make it 40 days without something; but to go 40 days and have gained something by the end.  And to my young delight, this took the “failure” out of lent completely.  Lent was now about the journey – and every good journey had some rough patches, but the important part is moving past the rough days.

In high school, I really came into my own… as an introvert, and so I took this idea one step further.  I started looking at Lent as a chance to focus on changing something – a change that would carry beyond Lent into the rest of my life.  During those days, most of the changes I chose to focus on where things about myself that I wasn’t particularly pleased with.  At the end of the 40 days, I was going to be a better person in some way.  Or, at the very least, closer to being a better person.  (Because by high school, my realism was beginning to weigh heavily on my optimism.)  I started working on study habits, time management, not fighting with my sisters (again – in a household of 3 teenage girls, this was a constant uphill battle), being more socially engaged and being more spiritually aware.

What this approach to Lent does is:

1) It puts God back into Lent for me.  I’m no longer competing with myself or my will power, for the glory of God.  I’m examining myself, as a representative of God’s handiwork, and making myself better for the glory of God.

2) And more importantly – it takes the failure out of Lent.  Because God, as I’ve come to know him lately, doesn’t give a hoot about our stamina.  What does matter, and has always mattered, is how we move forward from the choices that we make – both good and bad.

All that being said, I don’t think there is any wrong way to do Lent, so long as it is prayerfully approached.  Since this is a season of reflection anyways, let us let our actions reflect what this season is all about – be it on Jesus’ 40 days of meditation and temptation in the desert, or a season of rebirth in the “Spring”.  And God-willing, we will all come out 40 days later, on our way to being better people.

It is that time of year again.  The time when you put in longer hours than the sun itself – or so it seems, since you go to work in the morning before the sun has even risen, and get home after it has set.  The time when nature itself seems to have taken a sabbatical – the trees are dormant and the only animals you run across are the deer who are as astonished to see you out and about as you are to see them.  But by the same token, it is a time of year that we celebrate.  No matter the religion or tradition or label, this is the time of year that we gather around us the people that we love – bring them in out of the cold and dark – and celebrate the roads traveled and the roads yet to come.

But the celebration that struck me the most this year was our celebration of – light.  Indeed, this time of year the days become almost comically short.  “Surely,” we mutter to ourselves quietly, “axial tilt is some sort of cosmic joke brokered between some celestial being and the electrical companies”.  But then, in the middle of our winter holiday, there’s this change – and funnily enough, we seem to have centered our myriad of celebrations around it.  In the midst of all this night, we encounter the tipping point: that day where we begin the slow but constant process of reclaiming the light. The day itself is unremarkable – the change is so subtle, we’d miss it, if it wasn’t so elaborately commemorated. Even so, it makes for such an amazing celebration – it is our way of saying “we’re not out of the dark yet, but I know the tables have turned, and I can see the light coming”.  Beautiful isn’t it? Above all messages we share each holiday season around this time, it was this one that struck me the most profoundly this year.

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It has been a very long year. I cannot think of another that I celebrated the end of quite as sincerely, nor one that inspired me to look to the future quite as eagerly. Looking back on the year that has past, I am overwhelmed not so much by a sense nostalgia, but by a sense of relief – tempered both with fondness and fatigue.  And looking to the future, I am (as always) eagerly anticipating the challenges and adventures that lie in view – but this year also with a determination to make the new year better than the last. Perhaps that is part of growing up, but for the moment, I’m just going to attribute it to the fact that it has indeed been a very long year. In place of making the normal list of resolutions today, I choose instead only this: I will advocate for my happiness in the up coming year. And not just a pursuit level advocacy, but a decision level advocacy – I choose my happiness over whatever life might throw at me.  I choose to reclaim my light from the dark.

I returned home this winter break, relieved to rejoin my family again.  I hadn’t seen the motley bunch since I left for school in August – and now that I am keenly aware of the distance between August and December, I can assure you that it is far too long.  Home is where my heart is – and here, among the people that might not always need me but always want my company, is without a doubt where my heart will always lie.

My greatest joy during the break is that I got to see my entire immediate family again. No matter what sort of week I’ve been having, spending a day with my parents, siblings, niece and nephews will always light up my life.  Watching the littlest ones (my niece and nephews) play with the gifts I made and/or picked out for them was by far my favorite present this year. And this Christmas Eve we were informed that another little niece or nephew would be joining the fold this summer – news that was met with utmost enthusiasm by us all.  I don’t care how many times over I’m made an aunt – the news (and the title) never, ever gets old.

It was equally good to return home during a time that I turned out to be so very needed after all. My mom was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer during this break. And so, part of my time off has been spent in preparations and doctors appointments – all “culminating” in her surgery this upcoming Thursday, before we ease into the new routine of her recovery. I know for a lot of people out there, “cancer” is still a very scary word – but for my family, it is a familiar one… and that familiarity brings us comfort during this time of uncertainty.  Although we did not see this diagnosis coming, we grew up knowing it was a possibility one day (given our prolific family history) and understanding how the disease works and what treatments are available.  Our knowledge gives us something to stand on, when it sometimes feels like the rug was pulled out from beneath us. I can’t say that I am not worried about my mom’s diagnosis, because the steps she will be taking this week isn’t a cure for the cancer; but what I can say is that I am hopeful for her surgery and recovery – because the treatments out there for cancer are fantastic and she is in capable hands with her group of doctors.  And right now, what my mom – and my family – needs is that optimism, that hope.

So yes, it has been a long year and we’ve sent it out with our share of both good and bad news.  But I can’t think of another new year that has looked more hopeful.  Here’s looking at you, 2012.

All the best to you and yours for this New Year. May it bring you more blessings than you can count, grander adventures than you could imagine, and the very best of company to share it all with.  Slainte and Happy New Years!

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