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The Emotional Alchemy of Music

Dimitri Shostakovich, born 110 years ago today.

I heard my first live Shostakovich a month ago and I’m still thinking about it.  On a Sunday afternoon in August  the impeccable St. Petersburg String Quartet gave a riveting rendition of the Russian composer’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor (Opus 110).  The performance was a revelation. By the time it was over, I felt like I knew this man.

A Bit About the Composer

Dimitri Shostakovich  (1906-1975)  lived through the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Stalin holocaust.  His entire life he played a game of cat-and-mouse with the Russian government. The stakes: his physical and creative survival.

In order to please Stalin, and save himself, he knuckled under to pressure to pull certain works, such as his Fourth Symphony, and to write “safer” versions to stay in the government’s good graces.  He live an oppressed life.  His fifteen string quartets, which for the most part remained private during his lifetime, became the vehicle for his personal feelings.

Quartet No. 8, Broken Down

The piece is marked throughout by a repressed feeling, a sense of constraint and sense of threat.  In it Shostakovich reveals his own mental and emotional state.

Five conjoined movements comprise the piece, which is played straight through without pause: Largo, Allegro, Allegretto, Largo, Largo.  It’s an odd mix with all those slow Largo movements.  For musicophiles, there is a repeated melodic variation throughout using the musical equivalent of Shostakovich’s initials, the notes D, E-flat, C, and B.

(Listen to the entire Eighth Quartet here23:02)

1/ In the first movement (Largo 4:33) the four instruments (two violins, viola, and cello) weave a spare, layered sound that is both melancholy and slightly menacing.  The atmosphere created is hypnotic.  I was immediately drawn in and caught, like a fly in the spider’s web.

2/ The abrupt launch into the frantic second Allegro (2:52) movement filled me with a panicky breathlessness. My heart beat faster and I leaned forward in my seat. The notes themselves sounded as if they wanted to break out of their dissonant harmonies but couldn’t.  This movement appears as number five on a YouTube list of “50 Darkest Pieces of Classical Music.

Composer and author Jan Swafford writes in The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, “… this quartet is a self-portrait of the composer, brooding once more on a scene of devastation.”  This second movement captures that intensity

3/ The jaunty and eerie waltz of the third movement (Allegretto 4:05) is dubbed by some critics as a dance of death.  In it, Shostakovich communicates a sense of inevitability and hopelessness, along with a bizarre carefree quality.  In some ways, this combination made it the scariest movement.

4/ The ominous fourth movement (Largo 4:45) enters with three low notes hammered out, threatening blows.  Swafford writes that,  “… the string quartets … were all along his private rebellion against his times.”  As I listened, I felt the terror Shostakovich must have experienced in his own home as he worked away on his “private music.” I felt the crush of oppression, his conflict over the artistic compromises he made with the Russian government, the strait jacket of his survival.  And the fear of the knock at the door, expressed so unequivocally in this movement, signalling who knew what awful portent.

5/ Yet the fourth movement ends with an ethereal, almost pastoral sound, moving directly into the last movement, another Largo (3:40).  This section initially contains more movement and melody.  By the end it dissolves into a slow harmonized melody, a drifting away into the void, a wish for release, perhaps only known through death.

Music’s Emotional Alchemy

I have known some scary emotions in my life, frightening ones so huge I felt they could overwhelm me. I have stood on the edge of craziness, fearing for my own sanity.  But these moments passed.  The most difficult circumstances of my life cannot compare to those that Shostakovich experienced, circumstances I can only imagine.

Yet sitting in the acoustically vibrant hall at Music Mountain, listening to the outpouring of this repressed composer, I felt connected to the composer.  Music created a bridge across fifty-plus years from the time the piece was written in 1960 to today, a bridge that linked an oppressed composer living in the dark days of Russia to a 21st-century American woman.

I walked across that bridge and I was changed.

Music can do this, both construct the bridge and show the path across it.

Through sound and vibration I experienced the visceral physicality of repression. I was transported to another place, another body, another time. My heart was softened up a bit, and my view of the world expanded.

This is the power of music.  This is the emotional alchemy that can take place in live performance.

 

 

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I Had to Watch

The New York Times recently posted this three-minute video which contains  a compilation of recordings from Trump rallies. (Reader be warned: this is not easy to watch.)

Unfiltered Voices from Donald Trump Crowds

I made myself watch it.  The Trump phenomenon is disturbing to me.   I have a hard time viewing videos of the candidate, let alone his unrestrained jeering crowds.   As a citizen I’ve never seen anything like the spectacle of Trump’s triumphant and unlikely march to presidential nominee.

And as person who is committed to a decades-long avocation of spiritual growth, I needed to know if my personal beliefs could hold up to the vitriol I witness in the campaign, expressed both by the candidate and his supporters. My baseline belief is that, on the ultimate, mysterious level beyond the knowing of both scientists and theologians, we are all one.  If I am “one with everything,” can I be one with Trump supporters, too?

As I watched the video again, three things struck me:

1/ The strong language used by the Trump supporters, such as:

F**k Islam – on a man whose t-shirt caused him to be ejected from a rally

F**k that “n word’ – about Obama

As upsetting as these are, the worst are three chants about Hillary:

Unsettling: “Hillary is a whore:

Disturbing: “Hang the bitch”

Chilling: “Kill her”

Can I relate to any to these?  I have known anger, even rage.  I’ve said the words, “I could kill her,” but it’s been a long time since I’ve uttered that phrase.  The only time my father slapped me was when at age nine  I shouted at my mother “I hate you.”  I learned an early lesson on the power of those words.

2/ The cathartic glee in the expression the young man repeating “F**k political correctness”  outside a rally.  He looked so happy to finally be able to say, shout actually, what he had been thinking, out in public, in the sunshine of acceptance.

As a writer and musician, I understand the delight in being able to express myself freely. It is exhilarating to speak my authentic truth, and to be heard.  I know how that feels. Can I find a commonality in this man’s happiness?

3/ The older gentleman at the end (2:51), who says:

He’s the last candidate to preserve law and order and to preserve the culture I grew up in.”

This was the poignant moment, the one that gave me a glimpse of what may be driving support for the unfathomable choice of Trump. Perhaps supporters are yearning for a past that cannot exist again, or didn’t  exist at all.  Perhaps the inevitability of change is just too hard to come to terms with.  I’ve heard many spiritual teachers say: Change is hard, especially when resisted.

Can I gaze with neutrality upon these people, their reactions, their anger, their frustration, their willingness to follow, in what seems a blind fashion, someone who I consider not only mentally unstable (see these two links below for more on that) but downright dangerous to our country?

The Mind of Donald Trump (The Atlantic)

Could Donald Trump Pass a Sanity Test? (Vanity Fair)

What I’m trying to reconcile is this:  if we are all one, then what I am seeing in this video is also in me, and I am looking at my shadow.  I am capable of these feelings, too.  If all I do is push it away and refuse to look at it, or allow it to widen the gap between  Trump supporters and myself, then aren’t I perpetuating the divisiveness that Trump is touting? Isn’t that the same attitude that has led the human race to a history of war, rape, and violence against “the other”?

If I believe in a different future for this world, if I still carry hope for the evolution of our species to a more peaceful, harmonious coexistence, then I cannot avert my eyes.

 

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What Was I Thinking?

Autumn Leaves

How excited I was when I enrolled in a graduate writing program last year. “I’ll write a lot,” I said.  “And I’ll post more often than once a month on my blog.”

I find it quite easy to operate in fantasy land.

Yes, I did write more: essays, short stories, young adult novel revision, academic research paper. And read more. And I’m still doing it.

The first year of school I was able to keep up, for the most part, my monthly posting schedule.  But now I’m in my second year of school and it’s become, well, near impossible to maintain that schedule. Unless I want to lose sleep, and sufficient sleep is the most critical element of my “must-do-to-keep-going” list. Other items on that list: good food, supplements, fire cider, kundalini yoga, meditation.  And, of course, understanding friends.

Which you, dear readers, I count as part of that group.  I may not know all of you personally, but I do think of you as friends.  Friends of my writing, and hence my thinking, and hence me.

So thank you for understanding.

And look for a resurrected blog (perhaps even with a new look) in June of 2016.

In the meantime, you can keep up with me on Facebook (Nancy L McMillan) and on Twitter @NancyLMcMillan.

See you round the bend.

Round the Bend

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hand me that blueberry pie!

Blueberry Hand Pies

BB Hand Pies Header

The blueberries in our area of Connecticut are having a tremendous season.  Ben March at March Farm tells me that some of the branches on the bushes are breaking off because they are so loaded with berries.  I’ve been picking twice already, one of my favorite summer activities.  Here’s what I wrote about it in my book about March Farm:

The berries are glazed with dew this morning.  I come to pick early, when I can be alone in the quiet of the orchard, before the mid-July heat envelops the day.  In my hand I carry a basket that can hold five pounds of berries.  I wander the paths between the neatly mowed rows of bushes looking for berries ripened to a dusty midnight blue.  It is a shade painters must strive for, the deepest indigo wrapped in a white veil.  The color promises a taste explosion: sweet, juicy, and faintly tart. 

 I catch sight of a bush dipped in silver.  The slant of the morning light strikes the  berries as they stand on their stems, glistening like newly cast silver beads.  For a moment, I have stepped into a painting created by a master’s hand.

Yet as stunning as the hues are, berry color is not the truest indicator of ripeness.  Instead it’s determined by touch.  Perfectly ripe berries do not need to be pulled off the stem.  I roll the berries gently with my fingertips as I cup my hand.  The berries that easily fall into my palm are ready; the others left to ripen.  As I move from bush to bush, my fingertips searching the stems, I am content. 

Although I live only a half mile away, I feel completely removed from my daily world.  I am in touch with something primal, the simple act of gathering food, and something modern, taking control of what I eat.  It connects me to a natural rhythm of choosing nourishment directly from the source.

I’d never heard of hand pies until this year, and tasted one for the first time when we were in Denver earlier this month.  A lemon hand pie was the perfect finish for a light lunch in downtown Denver, followed by a visit to the Denver Art Museum (recommended).  This past weekend I tried hand pies, and found them fun and easy.  I started with this recipe from Bon Appetit, and here’s what I ended up with.

1/ Make the crust: Use half of my recipe (below) or use Bon Appetit’s buttery pie crust recipe, which is very similar to mine.  If you use mine, freeze the other half for future use, or make a double batch of hand pies. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 T sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 T distilled white vinegar
  • 5 T light cream (or half and half)

In a food processor, pulse flour, sugar and salt until blended. Cut up each stick of butter into about 8 pieces. Add to flour mixture and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Separate the egg and set aside the egg white. Whisk the yolk and vinegar together. Sprinkle yolk mixture onto flour mixture and pulse. With processor running, slowly pour in light cream, pulsing until mixture holds together.

Note: You do not need a food processor to make this crust.  You can prepare it by hand using either two table knives or a pastry cutter to mix in the butter, then blending the liquids in with a fork, using a light hand.

Divide dough into two equal-sized balls. Flatten into disks.

Roll pie dough on a floured surface into a 15 x 12 inch rectangle. Your crust will be thinner than when you roll it for a traditional pie. Cut into 6 rectangles. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper.  This will make clean-up much easier.

2/ Prepare the blueberry filling

  • 2 cups blueberries  – I was not able to use all these blueberries.  I recommend smashing some of the berries so you are able to stuff more berries into the hand pies
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg, whisked with 1 teaspoon water
  • 1 tablespoon raw sugar (I use turbinado for the crunch and sparkle)
Toss blueberries, lemon zest, lemon juice, and sugar. Before working with the rectangles of dough, use a pastry cutter or a thin spatula to loosen the rectangles from the cutting board, just in case any sections are sticking.  This will make the hand pies easier to move over to the baking sheet.
Brush edges of rectangles with water; mound some blueberries in center of each. Fold dough over, and press edges to seal. Don’t worry if they don’t look perfect.  Some of mine were not very square:
BB Hand Pies 1
Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, brush with egg wash, and sprinkle with raw sugar. Cut slits in the tops.
Bake in pre-heated 375 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through, until juices are bubbling and pastry is golden brown. Berry juices will run onto parchment. Told you to use that parchment paper:
BB Hand Pies 2
Transfer to a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.  Gone in a wink:
BB Hand Pies 3

 

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For Father’s Day: On Eagle’s Wings

E.C. (Mac) McMillan (1979)
E.C. (Mac) McMillan (1979)

When my father was dying, I grieved in the car.  As I traveled between piano students’ homes, I cried and wailed, then wiped my eyes before leaving the car. During the lessons, I never could chastise my students for their poor practicing.  At night I woke my husband up, grinding my teeth in my sleep.

My father was diagnosed in 1990. It took two years for the cancer to move from his prostrate to his bones.  During that time I made one of the biggest decisions of my life, one I knew would not earn his approval.

I was 38 and had worked for IBM for twelve years.  He had retired from IBM several years earlier, after a 40-year career. In my favorite photo, he is at work, white shirt sleeves rolled up, papers covering the surface of the desk, smiling, relaxed, in his element. He had helped me find my job there, yet I was always looking for a career that would satisfy a restless need for more meaningful work.  In 1991 the company initiated its first wave of downsizing through a voluntary retirement program.  I was one of the first to enroll.

I waited two months before saying anything.  At 8:30 on a Monday morning, an untouched bagel sitting on my desk, I made the call.  My father picked up, then my mother on the extension.

“I’ve got something to tell you.”

I could picture him sitting up in bed with the breakfast tray beside him on the quilt, her standing in the kitchen, wrapping the phone cord around her fingers.

“I’m leaving IBM.”

Silence.

“I want to teach music – piano.  They’re offering a retirement package.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am.”

More silence.

We said goodbye.  When I hung up, I thought I would feel relieved, but my gut was hollow with disappointment.

The next time I saw him, he said, “Did your piano teacher put you up to this?”

“No,” I said.  Did he really not know me?

Later, my mother said, “Your father’s worried about you, about your future.”  Yes, I thought, the security, the retirement, the insurance, the paid vacation and sick days.  And the part of me that would never be fulfilled in the corporate world.

“I will be successful at this,” I told her.  Her response was a worried look.

What neither of my parents understood was this was not a willful decision.  In fact, I was following the advice on the poster in my office, which showed a cliff, with a quote from Goethe underneath: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”   I took the leap off that cliff because my soul required it.

In elementary school I took piano lessons with a retired music professor down the street.   By age eleven I was playing popular movie themes from “Exodus”, “Camelot”, and “Man of La Mancha”, music that made me feel powerful and known.  Here I wasn’t criticized for being too emotional, a phrase I heard growing up not just from my parents, but also from my three siblings.

When we moved from New York to Connecticut, the piano didn’t come with us.  Perhaps it was too ugly for our new suburban home.  A few years later I told my mother I wanted to play again.

The morning of my sixteenth birthday, I was downstairs when I heard a commotion above me.  When I came upstairs, sitting against the wall was a new spinet piano, walnut brown, with a curved music desk and scrolled legs.

“Happy birthday,” my parents said.  I walked over and brushed my hands across the keys.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

I started lessons, climbing a long set of concrete steps to my teacher’s house, where I tackled challenging classical pieces and lush movie themes. I played Haydn and Beethoven.  My favorite was the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, the most recorded piece of piano music.  It became the music I always returned to when I sat down at the piano as an adult.  My teacher encouraged me to consider music school, but never mentioned it to my parents. Neither did I.

After a year I stopped lessons.

“I’ll still play,” I told my mother.  “The piano will be my therapy.”  I wonder why I thought I needed therapy.

In my mid-thirties, I moved that piano to my new house in North Carolina. In the evenings after work, I played all the music I knew.  It was still in my fingers. I entered a world I had abandoned, a world where the notes on the page answered the need to express emotions I couldn’t find words for, and where the beauty of the sound became a physical space I could inhabit, separate from the world of work. When I relocated to Connecticut a few years later, I found an accomplished teacher and took on beginner students in the evenings.  Then came the offer.

I knew my father was perplexed by my life decisions, and his disapproval was implicit in the lack of comprehension. I dated boys he didn’t approve of, became a vegetarian in college, left school in the middle of my sophomore year, married a hippie musician when I was twenty, and walked out on him a year and a half later for an older man. I jumped from job to job, working as a waitress, a secretary, a vet’s assistant.  As I floundered through my twenties, I wrote my father a letter attempting to explain myself to him.  The letter received neither response nor mention.  I never asked why.

After dropping out of college, I came home to live for nine months. Whenever I needed to think, I followed the steep path behind our house down to the Rippowam River. One Saturday morning my father asked if he could come with me. We sat on a boulder, just south of the arched stone bridge where cars whizzed by on the Merritt Parkway, and watched the skate bugs move across the surface of the water.

When I felt his hand rubbing my back, I tensed.  He rarely touched any of us.  I remember seeing him hug my mother only once.  Now he was trying to reach out to me, his youngest.  I wish I had been able to respond.

When I was twelve, he said to me, “No matter how well you do, there will always be someone better than you.”  Although I’m sure he meant well, at age twelve I took that advice to mean I would never be good enough, especially in his eyes.

One of my favorite childhood memories is of him reading “Winnie the Pooh” to me as we sat together in the wide red armchair, my fingers rubbing the nubby fabric.  He helped me with my homework, and taught me how to drive in his new 69 Volkswagen bug. Whenever he and my mother came to visit me when I lived in North Carolina, where I was finally settled in their eyes, working for IBM and owning a home, before they left he would hand me an envelope containing a generous check.

During his illness, I was living an hour away, and I stayed overnight at least once a week.  Every time I visited I played the piano, for my own pleasure as much as to show them the rightness of my decision.  The last Easter he was alive, a month before he died, most of the children and grandchildren had gathered together.  I flipped through a songbook of music from the thirties and forties, and played some selections I thought he would enjoy.  He sat at the dining room table, watching us, and asked me to play “Thanks for the Memories”.  Everyone stopped talking. Afterward the room was filled with the sense that it would be soon.

I wasn’t present when my father died.  Starting on a Monday, the entire family held vigil, taking turns sitting at his bedside since Monday, as he lay unresponsive.  On Thursday morning the hospice nurse said he had at least thirty-six hours left, so my husband and I headed home.  I stepped out of the shower when the phone call came.  The regret of not being there at an irreplaceable moment dogged me.                  

I didn’t touch the piano for three days. Mid-morning, four days after he died, thinking I was alone in our house on the lake, I sat down and played the Moonlight Sonata. 

When I finished, my husband was standing in the doorway, looking at me with a raw expression I’d never seen on his face. 

“Nice Moonlight,” he said, before turning to leave the room.

He’d listened to me play it a hundred times before and had never commented, but that day he heard everything I was trying to say, everything I was feeling, without a word being spoken.  That sums up what music can do: communicate the inexplicable, the inexpressible, and provide comfort and understanding where words fail.  It was then I realized that death and grief saturated this piece, which ends with three minor chords I’ve come to think of as the death knell. My father’s death was the first I had experienced of someone close to me.  This music helped me to accept it, and to place it in a larger perspective.

At his memorial service a tenor with a rich voice sang the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings”, at my father’s request.  It seemed fitting, for my tall, clear-eyed father reminded me of the nobility of an eagle.

            And He will lift you up on eagle’s wings,

            Bear you on the breath of dawn,

            Make you shine like the sun,

           And hold you in the palm of his hand.

Two years later, I received what the Native Americans call a visitation.  I dreamt I was on a snowy mountainside, shoveling a path.   As I lifted the blade, one of my gloves flew off.  I spotted an eagle above me, and thought he would catch the glove. Instead he flew toward me through the trees and landed on my shoulder.  I could see the vivid contrast between his white and black feathers.  In my dream, I thought, “Oh my God, oh my God”.  As I calmed down, I tuned into how he was seeing the world.  My perception shifted into a deep tranquility. Everything looked the same, but there was a layer of stillness between us and the world.

When I woke, I knew this was more than a dream.  It was an offering from the spirit world, and it was a gift.

 

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Best Springtime Pie: Lemon Sour Cream

I was in the mood for pie, but with no local fruit available yet, I was stymied. Craving a fresh, clean taste, I thought of lemon, but knew I didn’t want lemon meringue.  A Google search led me to one of the best pies I’ve ever had: Lemon Sour Cream Pie.

Its charms: easy, tangy with sufficient sweetness, and a hit with everyone, including a 1-1/2-year-old.  With a soothing mouth-feel, it’s the perfect dessert after a spicy meal.  We had it after Indian food, which we had eaten shamelessly, but as our dinner companion mentioned, “there’s a separate stomach for pie, right?”  The balance of lightness, richness, and clean taste make it a winner anytime.  I only wish I had come up with the recipe!

The recipe comes from a blog called Inside NanaBreads Head.  The link is below the photo.

Lemon Sour Cream Pie - My Slice - Inside NanaBread's Head

Lemon Sour Cream Pie

It requires a pre-baked pie shell.  I followed the instructions in Essentials of Baking, a Williams Sonoma cookbook, which has excellent dessert recipes as well as sections on baking basics with clear explanations and accompanying photographs.

1/ Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Line your pie crust (click on the link for my all-butter crust recipe) with a heavy-duty foil.  Fill the foil-lined crust with dried beans, uncooked rice, or pie weights.  (I’ve tried dried beans and the rice, and both work fine.  I store them for future use.)

2/ Bake the lined crust until it dries out, about 15 minutes.  Check by pulling up one corner of the foil.  If it sticks, it’s not dry enough yet.  Return to the oven and check every 2 minutes. Once dry enough, carefully remove the beans/rice/weights and the foil by gathering the foil edges toward the center and pulling up and out. (Have a heat-proof bowl or pan ready to deliver the foil package to.  It’s hot!)  Reduce oven to 350 degrees.

3/ Continue to bake until the entire crust is golden brown, about 10 minutes longer.  Let cool on a wire rack.

As the pie crust cooled, I made the pie filling, allowed it to cool completely (an important step, so be sure to leave enough time).  Once the pie is assembled, it should be refrigerated at least two hours.

I topped the pie with homemade whipped cream.  I did not try the raspberry jam layer, a variation suggested in the recipe, because the custard was so delicious I didn’t think it needed it.

Homemade whipped cream:

One pint (16 ounces) of heavy cream

Sweetener: maple syrup or agave syrup (I prefer liquid sweetener)

Vanilla – about a teaspoon

Whipped cream is made purely by instinct.  Let’s face it: you can’t go wrong.

Freeze the mixer bowl and beater. If you have a whisk style beater, use that.  Pour the cream into the cold bowl and put the mixer on the nearest to high setting. (On my KitchenAid, I set it on 8.)  You can also whip the cream by hand. While the cream is whipping, pour a thin stream of maple syrup or agave into the cream.  Then add the vanilla. Whip until peaks form.  If you whip too long, and the cream starts to “churn”, add a little milk and it will return to peaks.

Spread on the pie just before serving, or spoon dollops on individual pieces.  Prepare to be popular.

 

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The Secret Musicians Know That Can Help Writers

I am grateful that I came to writing after years spent as a practicing musician, where I learned perspectives that make my writing life easier, and I came to understand the core secret behind any creative endeavor.

First, the perspectives.

1/Practicing is an act of faith

When I grew frustrated in my piano lessons with Maria, one of my most important teachers, she would say that sitting down every day at the piano is an act of faith.  Some days it goes well, my hands feel great, the phrases come together with ease, and I can stay at my instrument for long stretches without feeling distracted.

Other days, I look down at my hands and wonder who they belong to.

On those days, my fingers feel stiff, I’m fighting the piano, my mind drifts off, and the music seems boring.  But I stay anyway.  I’ve been in this place before and know that tomorrow, or the next day, or perhaps next week, I will feel connected and fulfilled.  I know that the music will eventually yield to the repeated application of hard work and diligence.

And that if I stop, the ground will be steeper when I return.

2/ Daily time is a necessity

I often tell my piano students, “Even concert pianists practice every single day.”  Cellist Pablo Casals said he had to find the E  in first position on the cello daily, a simple task that beginners face.

The difference between writing and playing an instrument is that I write every day for many different reasons, so it is easy to lull myself into complacency because I don’t feel a physical disconnection from paper and pen, the way I do from the piano, or cello.  For writing, it’s the connection between my hand and brain that needs to be sustained; the connection to my characters and my story that benefits from the consistent attention.  I want to stoke that sense of living in my characters’ heads, of hearing their voices, of watching them come alive on the page. They will sulk in the corner if I ignore them, and the music I’m working on does the same thing.

Yes, life sometimes interferes, and I miss a day of practice or writing, but I never think about stopping.  In fact I become irritable when I cannot get to the writing, and the playing.  It’s a physical craving that is only soothed by engagement with my art.  I come back to the instrument and the writing, and start again

In my studio I have an engraved stone sitting on the piano.  When a student comes to a lesson ill-prepared because of a skimpy–or non-existent– practice week, I pick it up to remind them: Begin Again.

 Begin Again

3/ The beauty is in the details

Once I learn the basics of playing a piece of music, i.e., the notes, rhythm, fingering, then the music making begins: working out the phrases, refining the sound, working on technique to create the sound “image” that’s in my head, experimenting with the dynamics, grasping the inner story and emotions of the piece.

It’s the same with writing. Every sentence, every word, is crafted until there is nothing that stops the flow of the words.  I don’t know who first said “Writing is revision” because I’ve heard it so many times, but it is true.  When I came to writing, I never had a problem with this because I know how long it takes to polish a piece before it’s “performance ready”.  The repetitions required to master a piece of music are like “piling hairs”, another teacher told me.  At first the difference is imperceptible, but eventually it adds up.

Bottom line: a first draft is the starting point, not the finish line, just as the first run-through of a piece is the beginning of the journey, not the destination.

4/ The commitment is to something bigger

My teacher Maria once performed the four Chopin Ballades by memory. For those not familiar with piano repertoire, rest assured this is quite a feat.  After the concert, an audience member came up to her, score in hand, and pointed out a few measures where she had missed notes.  I would have been furious.  All she said was, “It just shows us that the music is greater than us.”

Whenever I open a new piece of music, I think about the thousands of players who have done the same thing, who learned and performed these notes in front of me. I sense the presence of a long line of people behind me who have learned and loved this piece.  With my writing, too, I am participating in an act that others before me have, as well as others that will follow me.  It gives me a sense of belonging to something greater, a sense of being part of a larger, unseen community of seekers of self-expression and beauty.

When I participate in making art of any kind, I belong to a greater community.

And the secret: Making art is, in the end, an act of devotion.  I give myself over to the mystery.  The commitment is not just to the page, or to the music, but ultimately, to my connection to that sustaining power.

I honor that commitment because I know it’s the only path to the treasure.

 

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Got the Winter Blues? A Galette to the Rescue

Charlie in Winter

We’ve all had it with winter up here in the northeast.  Last week, after coming in from an hour of shoveling what felt like wet cement, I was tired enough to cry “uncle”.  And I am someone who actually loves winter, relishes the purity of the landscape, and is exhilarated by a deep inhale under a cold, starlit sky.

The season has lost its appeal.  I’ve taken to calling it our Sisyphean winter:  we shovel the path, clear the driveway, rake the roof, and, like Sisyphus condemned to rolling the boulder up the hill to have it roll right down again, as soon as we’re done, it’s time to do it again.

We say to each other on a sunny 22-degree day, “It’s beautiful out,” then immediaIMG_2281tely add, “We are pathetic.”

We judge how cold is it by how tightly the rhododendron leaves are curled.

 .Rhodies Jan. 2015

And we have actually forgotten what summer feels like, a case of seasonal amnesia that seems stronger than usual.

At times like this, there is one surefire cure: baking a pie.  I have lately come to appreciate the charms of a galette, close cousin to a pie.

The galette, which is a rustic one-crust pie, can be put together with minimum fuss, and is supposed to have that down-home look.  No matter how you think it looks before you put it in the oven, it will come out looking mouth-watering.

Although French in origin, galettes make me think of Italy, perhaps because of their simple, country look.  And thinking of Italy reminds me that summer will come, even if I can’t actually recall the warmth of the sun on my bare limbs.

Here’s another reason to love galettes: they are thrifty  Do you have ripe fruit that is not quite enough to make a full-crusted pie?  You only need about half the amount of fruit for a pie. Did you freeze half of a pie crust recipe when you were making your pumpkin and pecan pies at the holidays? You only need a half of pie crust recipe to make a simple galette.

Put those aprons on.  Thaw that pie crust, or whip up my fabulous, foolproof all-butter pie crust recipe, and let’s get baking.

In case you missed it the first time, here’s the crust recipe:

All Butter Pie Crust

3 cups flour
1 T sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 egg
1 T distilled white vinegar
5 T light cream (or half and half)
Crust dust: 1 T flour plus 1 T sugar, mixed

In a food processor, pulse flour, sugar and salt until blended.Cut up each stick of butter into about 8 pieces. Add to flour mixture and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Separate the egg and set aside the egg white. Whisk the yolk and vinegar together. Sprinkle yolk mixture onto flour mixture and pulse. With processor running, slowly pour in light cream, pulsing until mixture holds together.

Note: You do not need a food processor to make this crust.  You can prepare it by hand using either two table knives or a pastry cutter to mix in the butter, then blending the liquids in with a fork, using a light hand.

For the galette:

Prepare your baking pan: cut parchment paper into a 13-inch circle and place on a baking sheet.  Divide dough into two equal sized balls and flatten into disks. Refrigerate or freeze one disk.  Using a lightly floured surface, roll the other disk into a 13- inch circle, then trim it to a 12-inch circle so the edges are neat. Roll the dough around your rolling pin (just like they do in the cooking shows!) and transfer it to the parchment paper lined baking sheet.

Mix the egg white with a little water and brush the inside of the crust  with this mixture. You will not use all of it. Allow the crust to dry, then sprinkle the crust dust on the bottom of the crust before you fill it.  This prevents the crust from getting soggy.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Make the filling while the crust is drying.  You can use half the amount of your favorite fruit pie filling recipe for a galette.  Here are a couple of ideas to get you started.


Pear Galette with Candied Ginger

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pear Filling with Candied Ginger

4 pears, peeled, cored, and chopped

1/2 cup sugar (or less, depending on the sweetness of the fruit)

2 T flour or cornstarch

1/2 tsp. cardamon

1 T candied ginger, minced

1 egg beaten with 1 T heavy cream (or light cream)

1 T sugar (I used turbinado or raw sugar for the crunch and texture, but granulated is fine, too.)

Mix all but the egg and sugar together in a bowl. Taste for seasoning and sweetness and adjust accordingly.

Spoon the filling into the middle of the crust, keep it off the border. Working around the circle, start folding the crust up and over the filling in overlapping, loose pleats. Leave the center open. Once you’ve worked your way around the entire circle, brush the pleats with egg and cream mixture, then sprinkle with the sugar.

Bake 25 to 35 minutes, until golden brown on the edges.  Let cool about 10 minutes, then gently lift the parchment paper onto a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Raspberry Filling 

3 cups frozen raspberries

1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar

3 to 4 T flour

1 egg beaten with 1 T heavy cream

1 T sugar (I used turbinado or raw sugar for the crunch and texture, but granulated is fine, too.)

Mix raspberries, flour, and sugar together. Spoon into galette crust. Fold over pleated border. Brush pleats with light cream and sprinkle with sugar.  Bake for 25 to 25 minutes or until golden brown on edges.  Let cool about 10 minutes, then gently slide the galette with the  parchment paper onto a serving plate.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: the berry juice makes this a bit messy, but tasting summer berries in the winter is worth it.

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A Post-Valentine’s Wish For All

 

Lady Hope Hears Our Heart
Lady Hope Hears Our Heart
          Valentine’s Day has come and gone, but I believe Valentine’s Day can be celebrated every day through the practice of self-love.  A friend shared this Facebook post below recently, which expresses a way we might consider loving ourselves. This kind of love and complete self-acceptance holds the potential to make us happier, peaceful, and freer, and, in turn, more able to extend our hearts to those around us as we view them through eyes of love, like the eyes of Lady Hope, depicted above.
          The painting/collage is one I clipped from a magazine cover a few months ago and pasted inside one of my journals. Lady Hope is gazing toward a sparkling heart. Her serenity is captivating. In the right hand corner is a bit of script, but I can only make out the second word, Sophia, which means Wisdom, who is honored as a goddess in Greek, Jewish, and Christian texts, as well as modern-day goddess worship groups. If anyone knows the name of the artist, I would be happy to acknowledge her or him.
          This post was on The Return of the Divine Feminine Facebook Page, authored by  Laura Magdalena and Laura Eisenhower.
Love your wounds – they reveal what matters most to you, what your deepest soul longing is and what you came to heal in the collective. That is why we chose to incarnate into the families and situations we did, so that we could experience that affliction, and take it on as our own and then rise above it for All…
Love your so-called flaws, they are spiritual jewels that mark our journey and reveal where we let go of the physical to embrace the spiritual fully, as we honor the temple the way Nature made it. It connects us to the deeper soul journey ~ wisdom, maturity, depth and transcendence. We are conditioned to see them as flaws, when really, they are an initiation into the deeper mysteries.
Love your dysfunctions and the things that cause you to lose friends, successes or throw you into life lessons. They help us to find humor, liberation and our inner child and it releases us from caring so much about what others think and allows us to find a deeper love of self and rise above the judgements of others.
Love your pain, It teaches forgiveness, tolerance, patience and it gives us the humility we need to unite together in higher consciousness and integrity… It shows us our healing power and how to transform, face our demons and get real with who we truly are and what we need to share and express.
Love your insecurities, they are a part of our genius and higher aspects of self that have just been shut down or unsupported. They show us our gifts and creativity and help us to let go, take risks and be comfortable in our own skin with our own boundaries and standards.
Love your Ego/identity when in crisis, let it be a compass pointed at your higher self, so that all actions, words, decisions and behaviors, reflect the nature of your divine blueprint. It shows us how to remove masks, programmings and ancestral patterns. It teaches us where we abuse free-will and reminds us of how to be authentic, powerful, influential and an example…
Love and honor these things in self and each other and focus on where it can take you and what it truly means, instead of how it makes one look and how it seems. When we see Truth, we see perfection in all things and we know how to find our way home…

 Valentine Card from a Student

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Blog Interview by Jack Sheedy

Hello readers. What fun to be interviewed by Jack Sheedy, award-winning journalist and author of the engaging memoir Sting of the Heat Bug. I’ve known Jack, and his wife, poet, editor, and journalist Jean Sands, ever since I started writing seriously almost 15 years ago. In fact, it was Jean who started me writing in the first place. I have many happy memories of the now sadly defunct Shepaug River Writers Group.

Click here to read the interview on Jack’s blog, where I talk about writing March Farm: Season by Season on a Connecticut Family Farm, as well as my writing life, music and, of course, pies sneak in, too.

1_MarchFarmFrontCover

And be sure to check out Jack’s book. Using crisp, witty, and moving language, Jack recounts growing up in Litchfield County in the post WWII era.  At the heart of the story is the love between Jack and his sister, Peggy. If you want to read the sterling reviews, here’s the Amazon link. You will laugh and cry when you read this beautiful book.

Sting of the Heat Bug

 

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