Here's my July interview on Grace Van Akin's monthly Book Talk on her Whimsy & Joy blog.
Welcome to Book Talk! This month's guest is writer and musician Nancy McMillan, owner of Whistling Hawk Studio and author and recipient of the 2017 Eric Hoffer Book Award for March Farm: Season by Season on a Connecticut Farm.
Grab a cup of your favorite coffee or tea, settle in to your most comfortable chair and join me as I learn about what Nancy is reading right now and more!
What books are currently on your nightstand?
Less by Andrew Sean Greer. A delightful romp of a romantic comedy about a gay novelist who leaves on a gallop across the world to avoid his former lover’s wedding. It won the Pulitzer Prize this year.
Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George, a historical fiction novel I’m reading for my book group. We’re focusing on the Divine Feminine this year.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This one is still sitting on my nightstand. It’s my reward for when I finish the first draft of my novel, hopefully by the end of the summer.
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. I’m impressed by the important work Brene Brown has down around shame and her guidance in living wholeheartedly. She does great Ted Talks, too.
The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer, a travel writer who decided to explore the power and pleasure of stillness. This is on my to-read-next pile, along with Doerr.
The Time In-Between by Maria Duenas, a transporting piece of historical fiction featuring a seamstress whose life becomes enmeshed in politics during the Spanish Civil War, leading up to World War II.
What book first got you hooked on reading as a child?
It had to be Winnie the Pooh, read to me as I sat on my father’s lap in the wide armchair in our living room. For my own reading, it was probably Charlotte’s Web. To this day, I cannot kill a spider. They must know that because they frequent my studio. And I’ve read that they’re the animal totem of writers, with their weaving skills.
How do you choose what to read?
For fiction, recommendations from friends and other writers who know my tastes. I always pick up the free magazine Book Talk at my local library and find interesting new reads there. I also pick up Indie List, a list of chosen by independent bookstore folks, at the wonderful The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot. We are so lucky to have this treasure in our corner of Connecticut.
For non-fiction, I let my intuition guide me. I don’t read a lot of memoir, but the last one I read, Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser, was outstanding. There is usually at least one book about spirituality on my nightstand.
Which genres are you drawn to and which do you avoid?
Although the first book I wrote was non-fiction, my first love is fiction, and I mostly read novels and short stories. I’m in the middle of writing a novel, so I choose carefully, to avoid either being intimidated or unconsciously stealing ideas from other authors.
I do not care for science fiction, fantasy, or mysteries. The exception is the Harry Potter series, which I loved. I began reading H.P. because my piano students were all raving about them, and I was hooked immediately.
Do you reread books? Which ones and why?
Oh, how I wish I had time to reread books. I will mark sections to return to, especially if the author was able to accomplish something I’m trying to work out in my own writing.
In the early eighties, I read a book called Departures by Jane Bernstein. When I finished it, I opened to page one and reread the entire book. I was going through a rough patch in my life and that book spoke to me in a way that gave me comfort and hope. I even wrote the author a letter--you can tell this was a while ago--and was thrilled when she answered.
If you could be a literary character, who would it be?
Scout, from To Kill A Mockingbird, for her intelligence, and perhaps because I was a tomboy, too. There’s a part of me that still longs for the freedom of that age.
Are there any authors whose work you have read completely? What about their writing appeals to you?
I’ve read almost all of Ann Patchett’s books and love every word she’s written. I fell in love with Bel Canto, went on to read The Magician’s Assistant. By then I was hooked. State of Wonder is a miraculous book. Her two non-fiction books, Truth and Beauty and This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage are exceptional. I love that she owns a bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus Books, and blogs about books.
Her writing is natural and elegant. She has great insight into human nature and creates complex characters who are so real you feel like you know them. Her writing is seamless, which is my favorite adjective to describe both my beloved novels and pieces of music. Patchett’s books read like they were delivered to her in one piece. I forget I’m reading when I’m in the middle of one of her books, which is the experience I strive to give my readers.
Which three authors (living or dead) would you invite to join you for dinner and why?
Ann Patchett, to be in her presence and absorb some of her writing mojo.
Geraldine Brooks, an outstanding historical fiction writer, whose brain I would pick for how she writes her extremely well-researched books.
William Trevor, the master of the short story, to pick his brain on how he creates unforgettable, sometimes haunting, stories. Plus, he’s Irish, so he’d liven up the party.
Was there any time in your life when you felt as if a book guided you in a profound way?
A Wrinkle in Time, which I read when I was about ten, set the course for the way I lived my life. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time. A few years ago, I reread it and was gobsmacked with how much the message of the power of love, and the idea of multiple dimensions beyond what we experience in our daily lives, put me on the path I’ve tread all my adult life. I was excited to see the film version released earlier this year, and ultimately disappointed in it.
Are there any books on the craft of writing that you recommend to others?
Yes. Here’s the list I recommend to my writing students, in this order:
The Elements of Style, E.B. White
(A wonderful illustrated children’s biography about EBW called Some Writer came out this year. Highly recommended.)
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
Bird by Bird, Ann Lamott
Still Writing, Dani Shapiro
And the best way to learn to write: Read. A lot.
I'm taking a Fiction Workshop at Manhattanville College this spring. We're reading five books that develop setting especially well. At our first class, we discussed the novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, a unique literary novel that describes imaginary conversations between Marco Polo and the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. Khan implores Polo to describe the cities of his empire that he has seen, but the conversation ranges far beyond that, into philosphy and consciousness. A fascinating read.
Then, as common in writing classes, we did a free-write, with the prompt of creating our own invisible city. We read them aloud. My classmate wrote about Mozartina, a city where the children drill their piano exercises, and the work is all drudgery. The adults in Mozartina understand that someday, although unhappiness will come to each student, the "night music," a play on Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music - you know the catchy theme, it was used on Nickelodeon) will carry them through.
Music is invisible when it's performed, and its effect is mostly invisible, too. Yes, there are written notes on the page, but the actual sound can only be caught in the moment. Music was the perfect choice for building an invisible city, and, to be honest, I wish I'd thought of it it.
That week after class I kept thinking about what my classmate had written, how the drudgery and repetition involved in piano practice described in Mozartina was true for my own piano students. The students' parents and I work together to keep their child engaged. I find myself saying to my students, "You'll be so glad you stuck with it," even though I know they dislike hearing it almost as much as I dislike saying it. It's something, at their young age, they cannot possibly understand.
A few days later, I remembered the words on a piece of artwork that hangs in my studio waiting room. The piece, called Night Demons by Brian Andreas, was given to me by a teenage student years ago, after she failed her college music audition.
Although this student's ambition exceeded her talents, by age seventeen she understood the most important aspect of music: its power to soothe, elevate, and expand. She had experienced the way it can shift the invisible inner landscape, and strengthen her ability to face her life.
I felt in giving the art to me, she recognized herself in the piece, that she'd learned her own night demons could not help but sucuumb to the beauty of music, having "no stomach" for their work after hearing her play.
My friend died yesterday.
Now I find myself in the kitchen, ready to bake an apple pie to bring up to her family, which includes her husband, homebound with a debilitating disease. My tiny and slight friend had cancer, and in spite of dealing with that and caring for her husband, she’d been in a good place. A few weeks ago, she threw a party to thank all her women friends who gathered around her during the last year, drove her to appointments, brought food, and created a web of support during this challenging time. She called the party, So Far, So Good.
The apples I’ll use are the ones my husband and I gathered from the heritage apple trees at a local land preserve. My friend served on the local land trust with my husband, and loved this particular preserve. My husband called her the “welcome naysayer” on the board. That’s the kind of person she was: she saw things clearly, and wasn’t afraid to say so.
I pull out the pie plate, gather the flour and butter. Then I notice the stovetop is dirty, so I clean it. The rings around the burners are spotted with black, so I remove them, and grab an SOS pad. As I replace them, the stainless steel teapot, covered in a film of grease, catches my eye. I never clean it. Now I scour it until it shines. I remember when we had to put down Abby, our first Springer Spaniel. The vet was kind enough to come here. It happened so quickly, they go so quickly, you know, once that needle goes in, they’re gone. And then they took her away, zipped in a black bag. My husband left for work, and I was suddenly alone. I called a friend, crying, “I don’t know what to do. She said, “Clean out a closet.” And somehow it helped.
So I finish the stove, then tackle the sink and the dish drainer. Grief, like all strong emotions, carries a physical energy. As my hands move from one task to the next, I think about all the women who cleaned through their grief. I think about my mother, who was a cleaning fanatic, and how much grief and loss she may have scrubbed through. Not just the grief of death, but the grief of life itself, the grief of loss and disappointment, of needs unmet and wishes unfulfilled.
Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and for a moment experienced the utter blackness of how death might feel. I wondered how it was for my friend, in those final moments. I hope she went quickly.
She’d become so thin. Snall and slim to begin with, the chemo had worked her down to bones. When you hugged her, there was nothing to hug, no padding on her skeleton. But she glowed. During her last year she grabbed onto life tighter than ever, she appreciated everything. The sickness brought her a radiance that I hadn’t seen in the few years I’d known her.
The cleaning calms me. I can bake the pie now. My husband will peel the apples we picked. I will fill that pie with all the love and compassion I can. As I make it, I will think of my friend. I will remember her tiny hands that could do anything: knit, sew, garden, edit. She was both an editor and writer, had a meticulous mind able to deal with intricate detail with an envious ease. She designed her own knitting patterns, edited cookbooks, knit and sewed for the Muppets. At our monthly knitting group, when one of us had a problem with a knitting project, she would say, “Here, let me,” and fix it in a flash. She was a wizard that way, a wizard with her hands.
My friend was elegant, savvy, and private, with a wide circle of interesting and intelligent friends. Until she became sick a year ago, she took care of her husband single-handedly. Last summer, I helped her clean out the garage in the house she had just sold. Later, we drove over to her friend’s house to see the gardens.
In the car afterwards, I commented on the friend’s high energy and the lovely design of the gardens. “She’s one of us,” my friend said, and although I didn’t know exactly what membership in that club meant, I was content to be considered worthy of inclusion.
We streamed into Ozawa Hall as the summer evening cooled and the sun lowered behind the lush lawns of Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts. The wood-lined, shoe-boxed shaped hall, designed for prime acoustics, reminded me of a ship, and the audience members passengers embarking together. My friend and I sat alone in our row on the first balcony, hovering over the stage. As the ushers closed the doors, we faced the front of the vessel and waited for our captain to arrive.
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson walked onstage, tall and substantial, dressed in a white tux jacket and black pants. Described by reviewers as “a gentle giant in the service of Chopin,” Ohlsson’s reputation as one of the finest Chopin interpreters began in 1970 when he won the Gold Medal at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, the only American pianist to ever do so.
An Odd Coupling
For this performance, the last in his season as 2017 Koussevitsky Artist, Mr. Ohlsson chose a solo program of Shubert and Scriabin, one he described in the program notes as an “odd coupling.” He found a thread between the two geniuses in the imagined career of Shubert if he had lived past thirty-two.
A pair of Shubert sonatas bookended the program, as they bookended the last five years of Shubert’s life. Diagnosed with syphilis in 1823, he died of the disease, likely compounded by typhus, in 1828. These two sonatas express the beauty and anguish of his personal battle. The handful of Scriabin selections, some quite a bit more than a handful for any pianist, included etudes, a prelude, a tone poem, and the roller coaster ride of his Fifth Sonata. Placed between the Schubert, they proved to be a perfect counter point, opening a door to the musical future that the composer never lived to see, nor exert his significant influence on.
From our seats we couldn’t see Mr. Ohlsson’s fingers on the keys, but better yet, we could clearly see his long, kind face. More than once during the recital, he looked right at us. Between one of the pieces, my friend whispered, “I feel like we’re his muses, as if our attention matters.” We felt within his circle of energy, if you can imagine one radiating from a musician of both greatness and humility, one whose powerful stage presence is the result of a long and successful career, a sweeping knowledge of the piano repertoire, and a transparent access to the emotional depth of the music he plays arising from his strength of spirit and intellect. His arc was wide and generous, fueled by his gift for penetrating, gently, of course, our emotional defenses. He calmly guided us to a place on the night ocean where one can lose sight of the familiar shore, a place where music can meet soul.
The first Schubert sonata, No. 14 in A minor, expressed the composer’s torment when first diagnosed with syphilis, a terminal diagnosis at the time. Being Schubert, he could not help but offset the disruptive quality of the music with gorgeous melodies woven throughout all three movements, as if he was calling to him the beauty of life before he would leave it. This is most present in the third movement, where the melodies are interrupted again and again with disturbances in both tempo and tone.
The Scriabin set spanned much of the composer’s artistic life. The pieces moved from the wandering dissonance of "Etude Opus 65, No. 1," to the jazzy, rhythmic flavor of "Etude Opus 8, No. 10." "Prelude, Opus 59, No. 2," marked “Savage, Belligerent,” lived up to its name. The painterly dreaminess of "Poème, Opus 32, No.1," was followed by the hair-raising ride of Sonata No. 5, Opus 53, which closed the set and left the audience ebullient in their appreciation of Mr. Ohlsson. Schubert’s last Sonata, No. 20, filled the second half, showcasing in four varied movements Schubert’s talents for lyricism, structure, harmonies, and counterpoint, as well as foretelling the direction toward modernism he would have taken if he had lived. Three curtain calls brought us three encores of short Scriabin etudes.
I closed my eyes--I wasn’t always serving as muse, after all--and sank into the music. Infusions of sound and vibration entered my body at what felt like the cellular level. A thought crystallized in my mind: things fall way. I wasn’t thinking about Schubert at that moment. I wasn’t actually thinking about anything. I experienced a sense of release, as if locked-in patterns of emotional imprisonment were dropping. The image of four walls collapsing outward, as in a magic act, rose in my mind. This brought a deep, mysterious healing, one I cannot articulate or grasp the effect of, and left me with the sensation of being filled up, and lighter.
I remember my piano teacher Maria Cizyk telling me about an audience member who sought her out after a performance to thank her. The woman said, “As I listened to you play, something inside me healed, something I didn’t know needed healing.” In Ozawa Hall, I understood what she meant.
A Distant Shore
That night in Ozawa Hall we were passengers on a journey, guided by our trusted captain. Our price of admission was the willingness to be transported to an unknown place, to lose sight of recognized lands, and to allow unneeded things to fall away. Under the sure hand of Mr. Ohlsson, we arrived at the unseen shore, different people than when we set out.
1997 - 2008
Most pet owners can tell you about their once-in-a-lifetime pet. Ours was named Cupid.
He came to us as a five-month-old street cat. Wild in spirit, with an intelligence that rivaled a human's, he was loaded with personality, good looks, and a sleek muscular body that allowed him to bat tennis balls over a net, leap from the kitchen floor to the top of the cupboard, and survive being hit by a car.
I could go on, but I won't. Leave it to say that for eleven years we savored his magnificence in physical form, and then one day he was gone. He disappeared on a Friday evening late in October 2008, slipping out the back door, off on one of his nightly jaunts. On Sunday afternoon a neighbor found him in his side yard. We're not sure what happened, but we suspect an attack from an owl or hawk. We buried him on our property.
We left our homes at midnight Friday night to meet up with fellow travelers. By 1:30 a.m. we boarded one of 80 buses leaving Connecticut. We rode through the night to arrive at RFK stadium in Washington, D.C. before dawn. We walked two miles to the march. By the end of the day, we clocked nine miles on our feet. The crowds were tremendous, the numbers so much greater than the organizers expected. Two hundred thousand were anticipated; by the end of the day, the number was reported to be over a million in Washington alone, with several million around the world. A sea of pink pussy hats filled the eye in every direction, along with creative and provocative handmade signs.
This is what democracy looks like:
I have never been in the midst of so many people, nor felt so much like a sardine as our group of six squeezed through the crowd to reach a spot where we could see and hear the rally projected onto a jumbotron. Yet, in spite of being mildy claustrophobic, I never felt afraid or threatened.
And this is what free speech sounds like (click on names for links to YouTube):
Feminist activist and icon Gloria Steinem called it an outpouring of democracy that she has never seen before.
California junior senatorKamala Harrisconnected women's issues to human issues.
Filmmaker and activist Michael Moore gave us our to-do list for activism.
Civil rights activist Angela Davis spoke eloquently about social justice and inclusive feminism.
Actor and activist Ashley Judd electrified the audience with a bodacious performance of the poem "Nasty Women," written by a 17-year old feminist from her home state of Tennessee.
The rally continued for five hours, two hours longer than planned. By hour four, we were all tired. The chant to "March, March, March" had begun. We were packed together so tightly that people around us were having panic attacks. The crowd made room somehow as friends helped them move to a safe space, which in our case was the CNN van parked on the corner. I maintained my calm by practicing yoga breathing. My friend told me later she used her Lamaze breathing techniques to keep her cool.
Finally a volunteer marshal appeared and directed us to turn around so we could march a different route. We shuffled down the street and the march began. Then, at last, we had a chance to sit.
After a long trudge back to the bus, and a wearying ride back north, I walked in the door twenty-seven hours after I left. I felt inspired, energized and, exhausted. The experience of being among that many who share your outrage and disbelief as well as your values is deep and profound, both comforting and energizing
All the speakers emphasized that this march was the beginning, that we all needed to go home and become active in our communities. A few weeks ago I tweeted: "Am I REALLY going to have to call my senators every day for the next four years?" It appears the answer is yes.
I stopped crying three days after the election. I decided I would not sit by and do nothing. The change that had occurred was huge and scary, unlike anything I'd seen in six decades. The antidote for feeling powerless is action. I signed up for the Women's March as soon as I heard about it.
On the day after the inauguration, something bigger than the election happened. People all over the country, all over the world, made a statement that cannot be ignored. As Gloria Steinem said to the marchers, "You are putting your bodies where your beliefs are. Sometimes it's not enough to hit the Send button."
Women's rights are human rights. It's up to each one of us who believes this is true to take whatever steps we can to ensure the progress that has been secured is protected, and that further progress toward an equitable society is established.
Which means we have to get to work. Progressive change has never happened without a fight. Sometimes a very long fight.
Because that is what democracy looks like.
>>> Want to know what you can do? The Women's March website is one place to begin. Find it here.
>>> And check out Indivisible for a practical guide, written by former congressional staffers, for resisting the Trump agenda.
In the midst of grappling with the final revision of my novel, long in the making and even longer in the rewriting, I turned desperately to an inspiring read. I asked myself, what character remains with me, after years of reading? The unforgettable character that sprang to mind was Fenno, from the middle story of Julia Glass’s 2002 National Book Award winner, Three Junes.
I turned to this section as a way of immersing myself not only in wonderful (understatement) writing, but to revisit this complicated character. I remember disliking him intensely on my first read, then slowly turning in my affection until, by the end, I loved him. When I went back to reread, I wondered what I had found so objectionable in Fenno the first time round. Yes, he was flawed, fallible, tripping himself up, but certainly not hateworthy. Perhaps it is the fourteen years that have passed since my first reading that make me a more compassionate reader.
When I reached the end, the crowning sentence (spoiler alert--if you haven’t read this novel stop reading my blog and go directly to your indie bookstore to purchase a copy)--I wept the way you do when you lose someone. I cried when his friend Mal died, but it was later, in the scene when Fenno is in the attic of his childhood home with his niece, after he has agreed to an unthinkable sacrifice in order bring happiness to his beloved sister-in-law, it is there that Glass slips in the clincher, the sentence that brought me to grief.
In this scene Fenno is thinking about his New York apartment, directly across the street from where Mal lived and died, and where he now watches the new tenant arrive home late.
“If I look out my front windows, stare right across the street, I sometimes see a young woman. I think she works long hours, as she is rarely there, coming home after dark in conservative, mannish suits. When she turns on her lights, I see a poster of orchids where Mal put his Chinese carpet. That carpet through that window, on that night of sleeplessness we shared before we even met, was my first glimpse of a life I might have shared, a love I managed to lose without knowing it was mine.” (Three Junes, p. 264)
I felt overwhelmed by this sentence. It contained the culmination of Fenno’s self-realization, encompassing our human folly. How we try so hard to be good, to be aware, to do the right thing, but we cannot see for our own blindness what we are doing or not doing, what we are missing out on. How life is right there in front of us, the blue jay splashing in my birdbath in the golden afternoon light, the wonder in the eyes of the toddlers in my music class, the sweet gesture of my friend who always stands by her door and waves as I drive off, and how I do not see it, how it doesn’t always register, how I can be oblivious.
What I realized is that this why I write fiction: so I can see what it is I don’t always see in myself and my life.
Fiction, in the hands of a skilled and committed author, gives us an opportunity to understand and know a character in a way we can’t know another person. And for anyone who craves understanding, this feels like heaven.
I remember reading a spiritual book, the title now lost to the river of forgetfulness, whose premise was that our wound is our gift. In other words, whatever it is we think we have suffered, whatever it is we think we haven’t received from life, that is the thing we need to give to the world. So if I feel misunderstood, not seen or fully appreciated, then it is my task to do that for others, to give them what would feel the most luxurious and comforting to me: the gift of being seen, appreciated, recognized. And by doing this I can heal, or at the least, turn my pain into something useful to the world.
And I’m here to say it actually works.
The fabulous Ann Patchett says that she writes the book she wants to read. From my corner, it appears I write the stories I need to read. I can only hope my readers feel the same way.
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 here. 23:02)
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 Swaffordwrites inThe 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
“I want to teach music – piano. They’re offering a retirement package.”
“Are you sure?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Music is a wide and wonderful world and there is room for everyone in it.
This is what I tell my students, and this has been my experience in teaching students aged from eighteen months to over seventy. Whether you play an instrument, peck out a melody on the piano, sing in the shower, rock out in your car, attend concerts, listen to opera, chant in yoga class, or tap your foot while others are on the dance floor, music is a way for us to tune into something universal, something larger than ourselves, something that uplifts us and connects us to each other.
I teach music because I'm in love with beauty and seeking out beauty brings me closer to a sense of the infinite. I believe in the power of music. It's good for the brain, the body, the heart, and the spirit. No moment engaged with music is ever wasted.
Here's a short list of quotes on music's power and mystery.
1. "To be a musician is a curse. To not be one is even worse." -Jack Daney, Jazz Trumpeter (from The Late Starters Orchestra by Ari L. Goldman - excellent insight on the challenges adults face when taking on musical study: click here for a link to the book)
2. "Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything." - Plato
3. "Music speaks to what cannot be expressed, soothes the mind and gives it rest, heals the heart and makes it whole, flows from heaven to the soul." - Author unknown
4. "Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces insides our hearts and souls and helping us figure out a the position of things inside us." - Karl Paulnack (from Welcome Address to Boston Conservatory, an inspiring speech. Read full address here.
5. "There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats." - Albert Schweitzer - (found in The Nature of Music: Beauty, Sound, and Healing by Maureen McCarthy Draper - a wonderful book, full of ideas on how to integrate music into your daily life, with companion CDs. Click here for link to the book.)
Thanksgiving is not complete without pie. In fact, I think it's the best part of the day. Move over turkey, move over mashed potatoes: nothing rounds out the meal like pie.
Our friends, the Hunts, host a marvelous pie feast every year: Pie Breakfast on Thanksgiving morning. They provide the whipped cream, coffee, and hospitality, and everyone brings a pie. Savory, sweet, pumpkin, apple, sweet potato, quiche. It's just heaven. Pies are served, coffee drunk, the room is filled with talk and laughter, a little piano music drifts through the air from the spinet in the corner. The atmosphere is relaxed and cozy. Legend holds that it's a New England tradition, this pie breakfast.
Pie for breakfast, you say? Are only New Englanders in on this?
"Pie has never been more loved than in nineteenth-century America, where it was not simply dessert but also a normal part of breakfast. The food writer Evan Jones quotes a contemporary observer as noting that in northern New England, 'all the hill and country towns were full of women who would be mortified if visitors caught them without pie in the house,' and that the absence of pie at breakfast 'was more noticeable than the scarcity of the Bible.'" (From The Great American Pie Expedition, an essay in Sue Hubbell's book From Here to There and Back Again)
A tradition that needs to be revisited. We're doing our best here in the northwest corner of Connecticut to keep it alive.
St. Michael's Episcopal Church
Recently I attended an evening service - a compline - at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Litchfield, Connecticut. A compline is the final church service of the day, in the Christian tradition of canonical hours.
It was dark and rainy that night, so I left home earlier than usual, planning to meet my friend. When I arrived, I entered the church through narthex (foyer), framed by two sets of wooden doors with cast iron latches. People coming in behind me spoke quietly, or not at all.
Inside the sanctuary, stone pillars marched up the side aisles, offset by a vaulted ceiling. Along the pews stood candles on tall candlesticks, leading my eye to the front of the church, where a large, round stained glass window drew me in. The Gothic design of the window filled the space with its symmetrical intricacies. I sat down on a cushioned bench along the rear wall and waited for my friend, happy to have a moment to absorb the beauty and hush of this place.
No one spoke. The silence filled me with a spacious calm, pulling me backwards in time, to centuries past, to a recognition of the importance of silence. To sit down and be still, taking in the peace of the church, was a blessing in and of itself. The quiet, like a silent wave, seeped into my body.
My friend arrived and we found a place to sit in the nave (body of the church). She directed me to a compact book, The Common Book of Prayer (1547), which was King Edward VI of England's attempt to unify the Anglicans during the break from Rome known as the English Reformation. We marked the compline section with an index finger, then watched as the choir, led by Music Director Marguerite Mullee, proceeded in from a door at the side of the altar. The singers, a group of women completing a six-week chanting workshop led by Mullee, were dressed in black, accented by scarves of their choosing. They lined up in two rows facing each other, perpendicular to the congregation. The priest followed, his upper body in a forward motion leading the rest of his body, as if in permanent supplication.
The service was short, less than a half hour, and those in attendance listened, and responded at the appropriate times, as indicated by the liturgy. The choir sang unaccompanied; a capella means literally "in the chapel". Their voices rose in the space, filling it with a sound that seemed ancient.
The compline is the "good night" service, an opportunity for the faithful to feel safe before they head off in the dark to their beds. When it was over, I remained seated while others immediately began to move, and to me even more disturbing, to chat. It broke the spell woven by this brief entry into reverence and inwardness. I wanted to sink into the vibration of the silence, drawing it into my body and mind, allowing it to work its soothing renewal. Although others moved out of the pews, I continued to sit with my friend.
The sanctuary was nearly empty when a man and a woman emerged from the side door carrying long-handled candle snuffers with large bell-shaped ends. They walked up the center aisle together, coordinating their arrival at each candle. As they lifted their snuffers, their movements matched, so the flames were extinguished simultaneously. They glanced at each other before moving again. As they passed us, I gave a slight nod to acknowledge their ritual. I don't know if they noticed.
When they were done, I said a quick goodbye to my friend, then left, turning once on the way out to take in the glorious church. As I walked across the damp lawn, the couple in front of me was chatting. I kept my silence all the way home, not even turning on the radio. I felt sad, and cheated of the opportunity to experience silence in a place that was designed for it.
Our society has never been comfortable with silence, and even less so now, when it is so easy and tempting to fill our minds and ears with chatter, busyness, and distraction. We avoid being with ourselves, avoid going deeper, avoid knowing ourselves and, if inclined, knowing God, or whatever you care to refer to the mysterious force that animates life.
I learned later that in many monasteries it is the custom to begin the "Great Silence" after compline, during which the whole community observes silence throughout the night until the morning service the next day. What a relief that would be.
Then a friend shared this quote:
"In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: "When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?" Angeles Arrien, The Four-Fold Way
I love this description of silence as a "sweet territory", as a place, a space to inhabit, when I give myself the opportunity to stop skating across the surface of my life.
So my question to you, dear reader, is where and when do you find the "sweet territory of silence", and how does it serve you?
It's apple time!
Here is my current favorite apple pie recipe, using tart green apples and spices. Feel free to substitute other varieties of apples. I do like a tart one myself, but follow your personal preferences, or use whatever's available. Romes are a reliable baking variety. Macintoshes can be a little soft once baked, and turn into an "applesauce" filling.
6 large (2-1/2 to 3 pounds) apples (ex: Greenings / Granny Smith)
1 T lemon juice
2 T butter, melted
1/3- 1/2 cup brown sugar (depending on the sweetness of the apples)
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. cardamon
Pie crust (see recipe from previous post, below)
1 egg yolk, beaten with 2 T light cream
1 egg white, mixed with 1 tsp. water
1 T sugar mixed with 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. cinnamon (depending on your cinnamon preference)
Crust dust: 1 T flour mixed with 1 T sugar
Prepare the pie crust. The top of the pie will be covered with crust (not a lattice top) so roll out the second disc in a big circle. Using a pastry brush, brush the crust with the egg white mixture and set aside to dry while you prepare the apples. You will not use all the egg white.
Core, peel, and slice the apples. (I do not always peel the apples - it's up to you.) Put in a big bowl and stir in the lemon juice, to prevent browning. Stire in the melted butter, then the the sugar and spices. If you like, you can mix the sugar and spices all together first to ensure even distribution of the spices.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and assemble the pie:
Sprinkle the crust dust on the pie crust. Add the apples, piling up in the center a bit. Cover with the top crust. Press the edges together. (There are many ways to do this - a topic for another blog post. But however you do it, sloppy or neat, it will all get eaten.) Brush the top crust with the egg yolk and light cream mixture. You will not use all of it. Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar on top. Using a sharp paring knife, make some air vent slits on the crust. Feel free to be creative here.
I cover the edges with foil because in my oven they tend to brown too soon. I've tried the pie-edge cover called Tan Don't Burn (clever name and idea, I thought, recalling the old Coppertone commercial) but found it didn't work well for my oven. I just keep an eye on the edges and the top, because that can also get a little too brown. Be ready to cover the whole pie loosely with a piece of foil if it's browning too quickly.
After 15 minutes at 400 degrees, turn the oven down to 350 and bake for another 40 to 45 minutes. The juices should be bubbling out of the air vents a little. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or homemade whipped cream. Sigh with deep satisfaction, then cut yourself another piece. Try to save some for breakfast.
Because life without pie would not be as sweet, salty, buttery, or delicious.
"We must have pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie." David Mamet, from his play Boston Marriage, 1999
I love pie. Thinking about it, preparing, baking it, and, of course, eating it. It is one of the consistent pleasures in my life. When I'm not sure what to do with myself, baking a pie, especially with local fruit, never fails to ground me. And pies are suitable for all occasions, and flexible enough to accommodate many forms.
I came to pie baking as an adult and went through a lot of trial and error before finding my pie-happiness. I am an ordinary cook with no formal training who has always loved to bake. On this page I will share my recipes, and some from friends, and tips for making foolproof pies from start to finish. There is no need for pie fear!
Let's get started. First, the dreaded crust. I use an all-butter recipe which has the flavor and consistency of a tart crust. It rolls out so beautifully that you can roll the crust onto your roller to transfer it to the pie pan, just like they show in the cook books and on the cooking shows. It browns up nicely and tastes heavenly. I actually prefer it to the traditional crust, as do my taste testers, which have included a Culinary Institute grad. If you prefer a flakier crust, I'll refer you to Michele Stuart's recipe in Perfect Pies, which calls for Crisco.
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 (a la Gisene Bullock-Prado) 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.
Divide dough into two balls, one slightly larger than the other. Flatten into disks. (You can freeze the pie crust at this time.) Refrigerate smaller disk while you roll out the larger one into a circle larger than your pie dish. (Ex: roll a 15-inch circle for a 10-inch pie dish.) Roll onto your rolling pin and transfer to pie dish. Brush the inside of the crust (bottom and sides only) with the egg white. Allow it to dry before you fill the crust. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to use. Sprinkle the crust dust on the bottom of the crust before you fill it.
If you're preparing a lattice top pie, roll the smaller disk out into a rectangle to be cut into 10 strips. If you're preparing a covered pie, roll the disk into a round a little larger than the top of the pie dish.