Memoir Glimpses: Why Memoir?
Posted on October 24, 2020
I never meant to write a memoir.
My love affair with words long ago turned me into a raconteur. My friends think I’m a good conversationalist. My sisters think I’m opinionated.
“I kissed the Blarney Stone,” I bragged after my first trip to Ireland.
“No kidding.” They said.
Throughout my career, my colleagues frequently begged me to immortalize my pedagogical wisdom in print. Some wanted a handbook for children’s choir directors. Others wanted a reference book on classroom management, student motivation, curriculum design, or even a “how to” book for organizing a community children’s choir.
In that “first life”, when I was a musician and conductor, I developed the efficient, clear writing style my young performers and their parents needed to ensure they’d arrive on time, at the right venue, in the right uniform. Through the diaries of my adolescence and the journals of my later years I developed an easy comfort with writing truth as I knew it. Describing experience by manipulating words into emotion has always been a release, a satisfying endeavor, but a book—that felt more like a burden than a pleasure.
Besides, I was too busy creating and refining these aspects of my own career to find time to write a manual for someone else.
“Maybe someday,” I’d reply unconvincingly. “Maybe after I retire.”
As retirement loomed, I worried about my artistic self. Where would I find the depth of engagement I had experienced through music, teaching, conducting and performing? The kind of engagement that had ignited my spirit day after day for decades on end.
“How about that book?” They persisted.
I made no promises, but the summer after I retired, I packed a plastic bin full of documents, plan books, curriculum files and organizational materials. I’d begin the book at our summer cottage in North Carolina. Not as an artistic outlet, but as a time filler while I searched for something as creative and meaningful as music. I’d work on the manuscript in the early morning hours, on the screened-in porch that overlooks our garden and the white water river that splashes along the far end of our property. In the afternoons, we’d hike, and swim and celebrate my retirement. Together we’d plan the next phase of our life.
On departure day, I placed the heavy bin into the trunk of my car, then continued prepping the house for a six week absence. The phone rang. A bit of business—only a few minutes, but before I hung up, my wife, my partner for 25 years, moved her suitcases from my car to hers, left a note on the kitchen counter and drove off.
I didn’t make it to the cottage that summer Someone caring for me moved the crate of reference materials from my car to the corner of my TV room where it still sits, staring at me. During the year after she left, I spent all my creative energy finding my way through the mire of shock and trauma that had become my life.
When summer rolled around again, I was ready to return to my cottage in the mountains and I wanted more than anything to write that book—not the music pedagogy book, but the memoir of my personal, creative journey from devastation to recovery to reinvention.
In Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver wrote about a similar sudden, unexpected loss. The character eventually realizes that maybe her husband wasn’t meant to be with her forever—just long enough to be a “doorway to herself.”
That summer in North Carolina, alone at the cottage, I wrote 30,000 words, discovered a new artistic expression, and entered the doorway to myself.
Inside the Lines
Posted on May 23, 2020
Inside the Lines
Covid Series #1 (March 2020)
When the bell rang to end the kindergarten day, our teacher lined us up in small groups by neighborhood. A tall, grown up 8th grade boy stepped into our classroom from the hallway and stood beside her. He was wearing a strap across his chest with a silver badge on it. The teacher introduced him. He was our safety. “Stay in line behind the safety and follow his directions,” she instructed.
I walked confidently down the hall “head behind head,” proud of my pretty new school dress, my shiny new shoes and the colorful new school bag dangling at my side. At the playground gate our safety abruptly turned to face us, raised his flattened palm toward our faces, and croaked in his squawky boy/man voice, “Stay inside the white lines when we cross the street.”
School was going to be so good for me. I always knew exactly where I stood.
—Raise your hand; don’t call out… Check!
—When I play these notes on the piano, return to your seats… Check!
—Always hold your pencil in your right hand… Check!
Now another helpful rule. “Stay inside the white lines.”
The wide white line stretched across the macadam street pointing clearly to the opposite curb. I could stand inside it with both my tiny five-year-old feet side by side, but I decided to walk tight-rope style, placing one foot in front of the other, just to be sure I’d stay inside the line as directed. I walked carefully, eyes tipped down watching my feet lest I accidentally step outside the line. Suddenly I saw two well-worn sneakers attached to two long legs straddling the line in front of me. I froze, looked up and squinted at the shiny safety badge glinting inches from my face.
“What are you, some kind of smart Alec? Get over there,” he sneered pointing to the crowd of children crossing the street with me. At that moment, I saw the other white line on the other side of the children and instantly realized what he had meant by “Stay inside the white lines.”
The shock of my stupidity blew the air out of me with a powerful, humiliating punch. My lip quivered and I struggled to hold back the tears. My heart pounded. How did I not understand? How did the words turn around and trick me? Would it be like this all the time?
Recalling this significant moment from my childhood, made me wonder about being a child today in the midst of our latest health crisis. With the heightened state of alarm over Covid 19, our children’s worlds are being turned upside down. Their schools are closed but it isn’t snowing. Their parents aren’t going to work but they aren’t sick. They can’t play with their friends but they’re not being punished. Children have no frame of reference for the palpable fear in the air. How are they processing our explanations? How do our words turn around and trick them, as the safety’s words had tricked me all those years ago?
On a beautiful spring day last week, in the height of the Corona Crisis, I went for a walk in a local arboretum. Everything was as it should be, the trees towered, the sun warmed, the sky spread blue and the breeze was laden with the scent of new growth. My whole spirit smiled and my feet moved at an energetic clip. The path was wide enough for two cars to squeeze by each other so when I saw three little blonde boys (brothers, I’m quite sure) jostling toward me, I moved to the edge of the road to allow the requisite six feet between us. As soon as they saw me they froze in their tracks and congealed into a tight triangle. They quickly turned off their path and walked in a different direction.
I’ve spent my life with children. I taught in the public schools for 36 years. I founded and conducted a community children’s choir for 40 years. I relate well to children. Normally, if I were to encounter this group of kids on a walk along a trail, they would react to me in one of two ways. First, they might look at me, return my smile and return my greeting. On the other hand, they might be so engaged in their laughter and play that I’d be virtually invisible. They’d ignore me as we passed each other. These boys clearly saw me and hurried in the opposite direction in a visible state of anxiety. When I was closer to them, I smiled at them and called out “Hi—i!”. Their eyes dropped to the ground. The youngest one looked sideways at me from the corner of his eye and walked a little faster. They didn’t respond.
Despite our carefully thought out explanations about what’s happening around the world, around this country, in our neighborhoods, children comprehend our words through their own filters. Even when their questions are answered sensitively, the complicated issues of this virus and its impact on all of us can not be hidden from them. They witness our anxiety, they hear our frustration, they feel our worry. They see and hear the drama unfold on TV and they create the story they need to explain what they can't understand. What fractured fairy tale do they watch on the screen behind their eyelids when they go to bed at night? Maybe they’ve figured out that there’s a dangerous virus moving around the world; that it’s a killer and it’s invisible. No one can conquer it—not the doctors, not the police, not the president. It can be on your hands and you won’t be able to see it or feel it. You could die if you touch your face. You’re safe in your own home, but people outside your immediate family can be hiding the invisible killer monster in their bodies. No playgrounds, no friends, no visits to grandma’s, no outsiders in the house. Forever?
When this is over, infected people will need to heal and we’ll all mourn the dead. The economy will need to recover and we’ll all pick up the shattered pieces of our lives. Even those of us who are lucky enough to escape the virus will need to heal the damage to our frayed nerves, our bruised psyches. We’ve heard it many times, children are resilient, and fortunately that’s true, but that doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility to them. As the virus rages around us, we must listen closely for misunderstood information in their conversations during play and take the time to clarify their misconceptions. We must listen closely to their questions and take the time to answer them sensitively but accurately. Then we need to pull out an old teacher trick called “test for understanding,” i.e., ask the child to repeat the new information. That will help you determine if what you meant to say, has been understood. And when this is over, we will all gently guide them back into childhood.
Posted on May 23, 2020
A gift emerged
And into passion grew,
In harmony with forces grand
Propelled by rhythm, form and lyric tune,
A life and purpose came to be
When children’s voices rose
And joined as one
Posted on May 5, 2020
I love to read all styles of poetry out loud. The sound of the words is as important to me as their meaning. Poetry is literary music and most classical forms of poetry speak to the musician in me.
The underlying rhythmic pulse and the use of rhythmic sounds in the text provide a forward energy that’s comfortable to my spirit (Carl Sandburg “The Rutabaga Tales”). Colorful imagery and lyrical metaphor touch my soul. I often chose this type of text for the choral pieces I selected for my choirs (Robert Louis Stevenson “I Will Bring You Brooches”). I don’t mind rhyme. I like rhyme, especially internal rhyme (Edgar Allan Poe “Annabel Lee”).
I appreciate poets of all styles who genuinely want the reader to understand the meaning; poets who don’t try to impress me with their powers of ambiguity. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate mystery, subtlety, or the use of veiled images to create mood, but I don’t like the feeling of “not getting it.”
The poetry I write isn’t always inspired—sometimes it’s just utilitarian in my evolution as a writer. I tend to reach for it when I’ve stared too long at an empty page that will not be filled with prose. A short, concise poem can jump-start my frozen creativity. As a bonus, writing poetry often helps expand my store of metaphor and improve my ability to communicate a complex idea using fewer, more specific words.
Posted on May 5, 2020
To me, a personal essay is just that—“the saying” of my personal thoughts, feelings, discoveries and questions. When curious thoughts or grand ideas well up in me, I feel the urge to shape them into words.
The longer I procrastinate the exploration of these ideas or feelings, the more they distract me. Writing an essay is often the best way for me to process life and then move on. I remember a time when I was going through a patch of disrupted sleep, brought on by worries about maintenance issues in my 100 year-old home, I wrote this short piece to help me clarify the whirlwind of emotions:
I walked slowly down the basement steps, pausing half-way as the heavy air wafted up, enveloping me in its dankness. Slowly, tentatively, I continued to the bottom step of the steep staircase and scanned the dry silt on the basement floor, the undeniable remnant of a recent flood. I had been away on summer vacation and this was my welcome-home party. My nostrils were assaulted by the musty air and my spirit sank. I stared at the damage, at the rusted useless drain in the middle of the cracked cement floor.
I feel unworthy to own this home, helpless, as I see it being carried away from me on the tide of disrepair. I know I can’t keep throwing money at this water problem, nor can I pretend it isn’t happening. Water, force of nature, dares me to win the battle, and then leaves me to confront my impotence. What am I doing wrong?
I bought this piece of architectural history because I revere antiquity. I wanted the privilege of caring for it. I wanted a share in its history, but clearly I had failed. I sat on the bottom step and the water within me ran down my face in rivulets and flooded my soul in defeat. It’s so easy to fail, I thought. I couldn’t remember the moment this particular failure began to overtake me but on that day, as I sat there weeping, I knew I had to move.
Posted on May 5, 2020
I’ve always had a yearning to be heard and understood. As a young child I developed an explicit vocabulary so my mother would understand my side of whatever had just erupted into my sibling’s furious tears. At six I could have been a lawyer.
In college, I learned the power of the printed word. Careful attention to sentence structure, vocabulary and style in any academic paper could be the difference between an A or a C. Once, a well-meaning professor, slapped a freshly graded philosophy paper onto my desk and said, “If this music thing doesn’t work out for you, you could always make it as a writer.” He probably meant it as a compliment, but at age 20, I was filled with too many doubts about my worthiness as a musician to appreciate it.
When I began teaching elementary school music, I learned the power of the synonym and the metaphor. I wanted my young students to develop a richer vocabulary, so when I deliberately used a word unfamiliar to them, I’d follow it in the same sentence with a metaphor or a series of synonyms to clarify its meaning.
As the artistic director of the Pennsylvania Youth Chorale, I learned the power of the detail. If I wanted the parents of my choristers to have their young singers at the right concert venue, on time, dressed in the proper uniform, with all their performance equipment in tow, I needed to be very specific in my weekly communications. If I wanted them to read that email, I had to be succinct.
Through a lifetime of extensive journaling I learned the power of honesty and vulnerability in my writing. Journals that hold my travel and meditation experiences, my nightly dreams and daily adventures, are treasure chests of the most intimate parts of myself.
In my 70th year, a traumatic personal crisis shook my world and threatened my very being. When I needed them most, the words I had served all those years, gathered to serve me. They comforted, healed, and eventually propelled me forward into a new relationship with them—into a life-sustaining love affair with memoir.