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November 22, 2017

Cheerfulness Breaks In

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I’ve got malaise. It’s partly due to the way it doesn’t get light in the morning, it gets gray. It’s partly due to having come off an exceptional burst of creative energy in which I sang the Queen of the Night, finished my first novel and helped put together a second volume of the All Present Songbook. I have to keep reminding myself that I should expect a gray period after all that.

It’s a lot to do with the news, which is hard to read but hard to not read.

My behavior regarding the news feels like my experience growing up with an alcoholic father and a disturbed, unpredictable mother. It was hard to leave the house because I felt I needed to track everything that happened so I’d know how to stay out of the way. It was hard to come home because I never knew what I was walking into. The best way to cope was to monitor everything –the moods, the explosions, the drinks—every hour of the day. It gave me a feeling of having some control.

I’m doing the same thing with the news. I get up wondering who is next in the parade of sexual assaulters to go down, what horrible legislation has slipped through and which of our rights as Americans have been further impinged upon. It used to be that the news delivered a shock to the system once a month or so. Now it’s five times a day. Obsessive monitoring of the news is the way Trauma behaves. Not everyone has it as bad as I do—and some have it worse– but I think on the whole, we are a traumatized country right now.

My malaise is the flip side of my anxiety. When I short out on the panicky feelings, I fall into dullness: instead of watching MSNBC, I watch movies from the Lifetime Movie network, aka All-Men-Who-Aren’t-Jerks-are-Rapists network. They are awful movies: bad scripts and bad acting. Not that different from the White House press briefings actually.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. The most productive and happiest non-pharmacological remedies for depression I know are gratitude and humor. I’ll pursue the first and hope I find the second:

I’m grateful for my friends who are my family. Over the weekend I had tea with Kay and Maxine, the feng shui goddess. Maxine started in on a story I have heard about 16 times. Had I been feeling less vulnerable, I might have cheekily finished the story for her. Had I been feeling less fragile, I might have rolled my eyes and told her she needed new material. As it was I sat back dreamily in my chair and thought about how lovely it was to be with my friends.

I’m grateful for my wonderful neighbors. Once a week I see a movie at The Gwen: the big screen TV in the plaid room of my neighbor Gwen who knows something about just about everything. I walk across the street with my house keys, cuticle cream, eye drops for persistently dry eyes and two fingers of Scotch. I let myself through the secret gate into Gwen’s exotic courtyard and do the secret knock on her side door. Gwen opens the door with a bourbon in her hand and we proceed to the movie. All that’s missing are the head turbans and cigarette holders.

Gwen and I made our semi-annual trip to Costco last week. I love these outings. We, armed with lists, are in and out of there in 45 minutes. While Gwen grinds her coffee, I write her a check for my portion of the bill because I’m there on her membership. I bought a pound and a half of organic power greens, which I belatedly realized expired in four days. I did it: I ate the whole thing. When they cook down it doesn’t seem like quite so much. I am so much better off for having eaten my power greens.

Bill across the street recycles his Sunday New York Times to me every week. I in turn read it, then use it to start a fire (in my woodstove, I don’t do anything illegal) or to line the yard waste bin. Bill brings the sections over as he finishes them, which mean he drops by almost every day. We chat and he plays with the kittens.

The kittens. We’re all doing pretty well at Elsinore. Laertes had his first vet appointment about six weeks too late for his booster shot so now I have to start the vaccines all over again. Otherwise he is in great shape. The gunk in his ears is not mites but kitty earwax. He doesn’t have worms or fleas or a respiratory infection. The big challenge with him is how much he eats. He’s going to be a huge cat. His paws alone look like fuzzy orange combat boots. So I have two feline grazers and one gourmand.

On the turrets

Regarding the smallest of the grazers, Hamlet is coming along. He is now consistently in the room with the other cats, with me, and with whoever has come in the front door. He and Laertes play, fight and sleep together. Hamlet plays with anyone who pulls his favorite mouse toy in front of him. He lets me stroke him occasionally but more often leaps up in alarm, retreats and watches suspiciously. He really does live up to his name: quietly and mutely suspicious. Other than that, he knows the hour of treats and he has a persistent little meow.

Hamlet and ghost

The big grazer, Artemis is resigning herself, I think. I am quietly optimistic about this. She takes great umbrage at Laertes’ energetic appeals to her. She hisses and he backs off but doesn’t remain discouraged. I have noticed that the three of them seem to do just fine when I’m not around but the minute I show up, Artemis gets pissy. She commands the bed at night. No one sleeps with me but her. She even used to run Winston off, god bless his soul.

The Garden. Tim is putting the garden to bed for the winter and I am making paths. I never replaced the lawn mower that died years ago. Either Bill or Gwen magnanimously mows my lawn a couple of times a year but my goal is to not need a mower at all. I’m going for a field. Or the London Park look. Kensington Gardens is a field with mown paths. Currently I have cardboard paths crisscrossing the yard: big pieces of ugly cardboard weighed down with bricks and pots. It’s hideous. The idea is to smother that grass and let the rest grow high. Kind of a poor person’s maze.

I’m getting a noble fir the day after Thanksgiving. Bill is loaning me his 50 pound Christmas tree stand and will help me secure it.  I’m hoping the kittens will climb it. I’m looking forward to the lights. I have this idea that if I turn on the tree first thing in the morning while it’s still dark, I won’t want to read the news and maybe I’ll write a few cards.

And finally, if you live in Seattle, this weekend is the annual Dibble House Holiday Craft Sale at 7301 Dibble Avenue NW. More friends, warmth, hot cider and cookies. It’s tradition that’s been going on for over 20 years.

Friday, Nov. 24th 4pm ~ 8pm (where yours truly is the entertainment)
Saturday, Nov. 25th 9am ~ 6pm
Sunday, Nov. 26th 12pm ~ 4pm

My malaise has lifted. Maybe you’ll get one of my Christmas cards.

 

 

 

 

 

Cats

October 16, 2017

The Boys of Elsinore

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Last month I finished the novel I have been intermittently working on since 1997 and predictably went into a slump. I experienced a 53,000-word hole in my psyche, which along with paying too much attention to the news roiled my nervous system. So what did I do to cope? I brought two feral kittens into the house.

Hamlet and Laertes

I knew the definition of feral but I had never experienced the difference between feral and fostered. I tricked myself into visiting Seattle Area Feline Rescue by saying I was only going to see what the facility looked like.

“This will be my fourth set of kittens,” I said as I confidently filled out paperwork.

I wanted two males because Artemis, my 13 year old cat, was used to being with boys and because I already knew I was going to call them Hamlet and Laertes. I met them: one orange tabby and one black, sequestered with a couple of outgoing females. The orange one was slightly less frightened than the black one but neither one of them was eager to be picked up and cuddled.

“Were they fostered?” I asked.

“They were trapped.”

Yikes. The seedy underbelly of homeless cat society.

Their starter home was the loft that serves as my guest room.  They hid in corners and behind the bed when I came bearing gifts of food, water and toys, beaming with goodwill and welcome. My three earlier pairs of kittens had only run from me after they linked the presence of the cat carrier with trips to the vet.

In addition to kittens who were terrified of me, I had to contend with a cat who made it clear I had betrayed a sacred trust. Artemis spent a lot of time in the sun room during the first week the interlopers were in residence. In fairness, she spends a lot of time out there anyway, mostly sleeping, but now she was sleeping in odd positions due to the giant chip on her shoulder.

“Come sleep, thou certain knot of peace.”
Artemis in Denial

I brought the kittens home on a Friday. By Saturday evening I was thinking this wasn’t working out as a life-affirming way to fill the 53,000-word hole in my psyche. Do you know how demoralizing it is to have animals running away from you all the time when all you want to do is love them? By Sunday I was crying at the cash register of All the Best pet care. Thanks to the lovely woman who sold me the feline calming device –though it’s an open question as to who actually needed a calming device–and who gave me a bag of samples along with such encouragement that I decided I wouldn’t run away from home after all.

There was an immediate problem with their names. I had originally named the orange one Hamlet and the black one Laertes. My friend Nancy who has taught line-by-line readings of Hamlet to college students suggested I had them backwards. I only had to look at the photograph to know she spoke truth. There was the dark prince Hamlet, receding as though hiding behind the arras, suspicious of everyone and everything. There was the more out-going, orange Laertes. I could imagine him patiently putting up with his bloviating parent (that would be me, I guess) while snickering privately with his sibling.

By the fifth day, I expanded the kittens’ territory. I opened up the stairway to the loft and blocked off an area on three fronts. Now they had some hallway and the bathroom to play in. I put an old window screen across one of the Pullman bathroom doors so I could see their curiosity pull them into a wider world.

More importantly so could Artemis see them through the screen. Up until that point, Artemis could smell them and hear them and this was her sole basis for lobbing guilt grenades at me. I watched her go through something like the stages of grief, beginning with disassociation. She sashayed through her day as though nothing extraordinary was going on until she saw one of the kittens through the screen. She’d rear up and hiss, the kitten would scamper out of sight and Artemis would immediately go back into her waltz of denial.

Here’s where we are three weeks out: the boys are living up to their namesakes. Laertes is cuddling and purring while Hamlet watches me suspiciously and only runs in terror about 50 per cent of the time. I have pushed their vet check-up forward three times because I have no confidence I can catch Hamlet.

I got tired of having to scale a wall to get into my own bathroom so I opened up the rest of house to the kittens during the day. The boys play in Elsinore Castle and Artemis sulks silently when she isn’t hissing at them. The kittens are curious about her but she’s not having any of it. Even so there’s been some progress: at least Artemis deigns to be in the same room with them and even watches them play.

The Boys of Elsinore

At night I close the kittens up in the loft where, among other things, a cat carrier sits open with a nice wool cushion inside and occasionally a dish of something enticing. The vet appointment is a month off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BooksFriendsWriting

September 21, 2017

Finished the Book!

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When I was a child I often wailed “What can I do?”

My father wailed back at me “The perpetual cry of youth: what can I do?”

Irritated me no end but there you are.

I am feeling a little of that angst this month because I am between quarters so no choirs to direct or watercolor classes to teach. I have my private students but without the classes and choirs I feel on vacation except I can’t go anywhere because I’m working. But there you are again.

I was up on Whidbey Island the first part of the month to work on my novel and I finished it!  I have been going up to my retreat on Whidbey four times a year, ten days at a time for two years. This trip was to be routine. I wasn’t expecting to come home with a completed novel. My hair-dresser (Ross) said he could tell by the way I talked when I got my complimentary trim that I was going to finish my book. (They are uncanny, aren’t they, hairdressers? Maybe it’s because they work so close to the brain.)

Anyway I started this book in 1997. That’s right. Last millennium. It began as a short story about a spirituality group that imploded from recriminations and hurt feelings.  It sat for a long time because I didn’t know how to finish it.

I went for years whining that I couldn’t think of a plot. I learned something about plot when I wrote my memoir because a memoir has a built-in plot. Or at least mine did: I was a mess, my parents died, I got better. Have you ever heard someone say, “You know what that child’s biggest problem is? Her parents.” Well, then.

I started writing my blog in 2011 and through that I’ve learned something about creating characters: Gwen my neighbor who knows something about just about everything. Putzer, the Attorney. Nina, rhymes with Dinah. Chris, the unclassifiable except she’s a tenor.  None of these people are in the book but their presence in various blog posts helped me think about characters, especially quirky ones. We’re all pretty quirky once we start paying attention. I feel like the biggest quirk of all and every character in my book is a part of my psyche. When you think about it, how could it be otherwise?

I worked with an editor (Jennifer D. Munro) and learned some basics about Point of View—something I never had to think about with a memoir or with a blog, for that matter. Jennifer was gracious, cheerful, constructive and fun. She had a lot to do with the book’s final acceleration.

Through it all, though, I have had the great encouragement (and periodic annoying prodding) from my friend and former Whitman College roommate and fellow English major who might call this a run-on sentence and who still lives in Walla Walla, Debi. She has cheerfully read all my pitiful attempts and all my prep work. The book is dedicated to her.

It’s called Advancing the Retreat. It takes place in my little area of Crown Hill and refers to Seattle places and landmarks. I imagined my house and neighborhood as the setting because it was easy for me to keep track of directions and distances. You know, for verisimilitude and consistency. It’s narrated by four different women plus one omniscient narrator.

April March wants nothing more than to be left alone to putter in her garden but her husband has joined the church across the street and April gets pulled into the machinations of the congregation. The minister’s wife has a secret, the minister has a different secret. Down the street is a new friend of April’s who knows both their secrets.

Meanwhile there’s a squirrel loose in the church, a loan to pay off, and a fund raiser of a sacrilegious calendar that outrages the minister’s wife. The minister fancies himself a musician and pushes his ideas on the choir director who in turn impinges on his turf by creating a spirituality group that she calls Ouroboros, the snake that eats its tail. April annoys the minister by creating a magnificent labyrinth in her yard to rival his plastic one, which he hopes will attract rental groups to the new wing of the church, which has yet to be paid for.

That’s probably enough. I’ve basically given you my query letter. That’s the new time suck. Writing to 200 plus literary agencies and publishers so that I can get a bunch of rejections for Christmas.

I’m back to why I started writing this post. It’s hard for a self-employed person to do nothing.  The Ouroboros is chomping away. The end of one thing is the beginning of another. Writing this novel has been so creatively satisfying that there’s a big hole right now. Not a hole I want to fill up with rejection notices, but there you are.

FriendsPoemsSingingSongs

August 25, 2017

Report from the 92% Zone

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Monday, August 21, the day of the eclipse brought a holiday atmosphere to my neighborhood. I was working on a watercolor sunflower and trying to not dip the paint brush in my cup of coffee when the light changed. Shadows got long like they do in the afternoon when the sun is low. Then as so many of us have remarked, it suddenly got chilly. A hollow coldness, not a cool summer breeze.

I was unprepared for this day. As it approached, when I thought about it at all, I mostly wondered if a person could go blind in an instant if she happened to half glance at the sun out of the corner of her eye by accident. Don’t laugh. I didn’t know—and hadn’t bothered to find out.

I don’t make a habit of looking at the sun. A difficulty arises when one is told not to do something. The forbidden is so tempting. I fluttered my fingers across my face and glanced at the sun. It was so extraordinarily bright that I didn’t care to look further. And when I didn’t go into total eclipse myself, well that was when I put a jacket on and took my cup of coffee across the street to see what the neighbors were doing.

“Gwen!” I called through her (8 foot solid) fence. I knew she’d be outside.

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“Do you have any of those eclipse glasses?”

“I’ve got something better!”

Leave it to Gwen, I thought. She’s probably got some welder’s eye wear or something.

Gwen was taking photos of a white sheet of paper pinned on her fence.

“What is it?”

“It’s the eclipse.”

“What is?”

“Can’t you see the shadows?”

“You mean all those little curls?”

I followed Gwen around the east facing side of her fence until I had seen enough of the curls of shadow. Then I went next door where Liz and her two kids were lying on a trampoline with eclipse glasses on. To the side were the remains of breakfast.  They’d been there all morning having a kind of party. They invited me up and shared their glasses so I could get a long, fascinated look.

I went home and sang an aria by Handel. It’s a tenor aria from the oratorio Samson called “Total Eclipse.”  Samson, whose eyes have been gouged out by the Philistines (how lovely,) sings of his blindness (while in extremis.) The text is taken loosely from Milton’s Samson Agonistes. I can still hear Dr. Tyson in 17th Century lit at Whitman College intoning, “Dark, dark, dark amid the blaze of noon.”  Here’s the text from the song:

Total eclipse!
No sun, no moon
All dark amidst the blaze of noon!
Oh, glorious light!
No cheering ray
To glad my eye to welcome day.
Why thus deprived thy prime decree?
Sun, moon, and stars are dark to me.

You can hear Jon Vickers, heldentenor, give a chilling interpretation of the aria. Ignore the formal presentation if that puts you off and just listen. It’s a sobering five minutes.

 

Alzheimer's diseaseChoir SingingFriendsSingingSongsTeaching

August 14, 2017

The All Present Songbook Volume 2

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For reasons I have no desire to remember given what it wrought, my creative energy was surging in the month of June. I proposed to my All Present team that we do a second volume of songs for our song circle. In the past, we’ve just swapped new ones in to replace ones that the group never took to or that we were sick of.  The All Present quarter started early in July. We had three weeks. It seemed like a good idea.

We have a dementia-friendly songbook of nearly 100 songs that had been loved almost to death.  We have edited them, taken out verses, put in verses, changed the font size, put in repeating choruses and swapped out songs that weren’t working for new ones. I (at the piano), Susan (Abbe) and the Other Susan (who sings, leads, dances and mugs for the group) zing feedback around like ping-pong balls as we sing through the songs at All Present on Thursday mornings. Then Susan (Abbe) goes home and brings her formidable talents as a librarian and editor to bear on organizing and standardizing all our work from the field.

Our first volume contains 40s and 50s standards, Broadway musicals and old popular and folk songs. We have separate sections for Irish songs (so we only have to sing “Danny Boy” for a few months out of the year) and Christmas songs. The folks with memory loss don’t get tired of the songs because they don’t remember they’ve sung them. But after four years we were thoroughly sick of them all. I knew what was coming next before I even turned the page. When the songs go through my head at three in the morning, they go in order.

We drew up our list of over 100 songs. Susan found the lyrics on line and created documents, sections and pages. I went hunting for the accompaniments. This was a seat of the pants operation and I had no budget. Otherwise I could have gotten digital copies of all the songs and had them transposed to singable keys at $5 a pop. Instead I went paging through my entire music library. It took some time but I found all but 17 songs.  I found 11 songs on-line at free score sites. Three I wrote out from memory. The public library came through with the last two songs, which were “Mexicali Rose” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.”

I screened all the songs for friendly keys. No notes above C-5. Once when people complained that the song was too high, I told everyone to sit up straight and take better breaths. One person thought that was funny.

Classical music is usually available in at least two keys designated high or low; sometimes there’s also a medium. Music scores for popular music are copyrighted in a certain key and it’s almost always either too high or too low for actual human singing. However now it’s possible to buy digital music in different keys. Operative word, buy. I wasn’t buying. Well, okay, I bought two transposed songs (“Swinging on a Star” and “Beyond the Sea”) from a digital site because the thought of transposing them gave me a headache.

Then I transposed 40 of the songs.

Let me tell you what that entails because I am feeling somewhere between aggrieved and martyred. If it’s a simple folk song with two or three chords, I just write out the words and put the chord names above them and play it by ear. But if it’s a Broadway tune or a popular song, it’s often too complicated for me and I need at least the melody line on staff paper.

To transpose, I start with a sheet of music manuscript paper and put treble clefs at the beginning of each line. I space out the words to the songs below the staff lines. I put in the measure lines working either from the music in the impossible-to-sing key or doing it from my own sense of rhythm. Then I find the tessitura of the song, that is to say, the general range of pitches. I look for the highest pitch and notice how often that pitch is actually needed. From those calculations I move the tessitura down. Now I’ve got a key.

At the piano I play the tune in the new key to check that it’s friendly and that it’s actually the key I think it is. Sometimes I can then just write the notes in the new key. But sometimes I have to figure the interval from notes in the impossible-to-sing key to notes in the key I’m transposing to. If it’s five half steps lower, I write notes five half steps lower in pencil. I check all the notes on the piano before I ink in the rhythms. Finally I put the chord symbols in the new key. Voilà. I have a fake sheet. It’s taken about 45 minutes. Times 40.

Okay, so that’s my whine. Susan had hers. She is a professional copy editor. Too many spaces between ellipses make her crazy. In our first volume of All Present songs, every line of every song is punctuated perfectly. Words are spelled correctly and—in case of homonyms– mean what they are meant to mean. Upper and lower case are where they should be. One hundred songs are a lot to punctuate let alone in three weeks.

Susan sent me drafts of lyrics and begged me to make sure that the words she was finding fit the music I was finding. An extra word at the beginning of a line, a gratuitous “and” or “then” can throw off an entire group of singers with or without dementia. I was cursory at best about this. Putting together an accompaniment book for 100 songs, I hadn’t time for such niceties.

I was seven songs into her drafts when I came upon the Welsh folk song “The Ash Grove” and Cole Porter’s “True Love.” I have some particularly wonderful words for “The Ash Grove” from the Arnold Book of Old Songs. I sent them to Susan as my preferred text. I removed the verse from “True Love” saying that no one knew it. Susan wrote back to protest that she knew the verse to “True Love” and that her words to ‘The Ash Grove” were the ones her mother had sung to her.

“Okay,” I wrote. “Put the verse to “True Love” back in but I’m not negotiating on ‘The Ash Grove.’”

I got back the response that had me laughing for days: “Okay, I guess I can live with it. I’ll look at them tomorrow. I can’t stand the sight of them right now.”

I thought she was being funny, playing the martyr, possibly because I felt so much like one. It also could have been the association of “mother.” (Not her mother, mind you, but mine.) Susan says lots of things that make me laugh. This wasn’t supposed to be one of them. This was a cry for help. She was drowning in our little project as much as I was.

We got the book of over 100 new songs thrown together, the Greenwood Senior Center printed it (duplexed and 3-hole punched) and Susan and her husband Mike put the pages into binders. We’ve been struggling through it all summer. Susan can barely look at the book because all she sees is missing punctuation. For myself, there have been a dozen more that needed to be transposed and who knew there were so many different ways of singing “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “The Eire Canal” and that people could be so protective about their versions? And that’s just between me and my assistants.

You know who is taking it all in stride with good humor and strong voices? The folks with dementia, the people we did all this for. That calms me down and makes me smile.

“True Love” (with verse and chorus)

Suntanned, windblown,
Honeymooners at last alone,
Feeling far above par,
Oh, how lucky we are.

While I give to you and you give to me,
True love, true love.
So on and on it will always be
True love, true love.

For you and I have a guardian angel
On high, with nothing to do
But to give to you and to give to me
Love forever true.

 

The Ash Grove (the 7th line is the reason I love these words)

Away in the shadows a lone bird is singing,
The wind whispers low in a sighing refrain;
Their music makes memory’s voices go winging,
The ash grove in beauty I see once again.

The voices of friends that the long years have taken,
Oh, faintly I hear them, the song and the word.
How much in the heart can so little awaken,
The wind in the leaves and the song of a bird.

 

Elena at the Piano

 

Susan and Vivian, whom we loved and who left us last year

 

 

 

CatsDogsFriends

July 31, 2017

A Dog and a Cat

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A few months’ ago I confided in my friend Tim my desire to have a dog.

“I’m going to give you some advice,” he said. “Don’t. You’re a cat person.”

I positively bristled at this: You’re not the boss of me. Don’t tell me I can’t do something. Adults don’t tell other adults they can’t do things. When I want advice, I’ll ask for it.

I related all this to my friend Nancy who burst out laughing.

“You are a cat person,” she said. “You even bristle like a cat. You won’t see a dog bristle. And you’re self-contained like a cat.”

Fast forward to this week. I said to Tim, “I’m going to tell you something you’ll probably never hear again from me. So enjoy it while you can: you were right.”

My revelation came about because I am pet sitting for a friend this week. I have responsibilities for a dog, a cat, and a house alarm system. The cat is the only one that doesn’t bring with it both a steep learning curve and several shots of anxiety.

The animals I already know. I adore the cat. He’s a smooth, white cat with shell-shaped patches of gray and black, a soulful expression and a majestic bearing. His name—you’ll want to be sitting for this—the name of this dignified creature is Fang. He dislikes being picked up so of course I pick him up every time I visit. He protests plaintively while snuggling against me at the same time. So he’s hardly a Fang but Fang he is called. Fang needs to be visited and fed twice a day and I am fine with this. It’s the standard I’m used to.

Rocket, the dog, is a Silken Windhound. He looks like a whippet only with flowing fur and a long whispery tail. His face I can only describe as pretty. He’s a pretty dog and very sweet. He’s thin: when he lays in the yard smiling his sweet smile, his flowing fur is at one with the grass so his neck and head look like they are growing out of the earth. Rockets needs a chance to pee at least three times a day. This is a standard that dog owners understand but it was new to me.

I thought I could eliminate one pee visit a day if Rocket just stayed with me. Though I had all the infra-structure in place, it was my cat, Artemis who put the kibosh on that idea. She was fine with the kennel sitting in the front room, she just didn’t want a dog in it. Rocket sniffing around the house immediately put her off. She jumped on a scratch post that serves as a launch to an overhang and from there to crawl under an eave of the sun room. She hangs out there a lot, away from anyone or anything that might disturb her peace of mind.

Meantime I thought that Rocket would go around like a wind-up toy until he ran down and then he’d flop and be like a cat. A cat requires food and water and your presence should she desire it. The rest of the time she either doesn’t want you around or she has no hesitation in settling down, immovable, into whatever you are trying to do be it writing, reading, knitting, gardening, playing the piano, working on the computer, cooking with heat or sewing with sharp needles. Whatever she has interrupted, a cat is content as long as you work around and don’t inconvenience her.

A dog, it seems, wants you to invite his participation into everything you do. When I sat on the couch and tried to read, Rocket wanted to see what I was reading. He wanted me to share the funny bits with him. He wanted to gaze adoringly into my face. When I turned on the TV, he wanted to pace in front of it. He finally settled down on his blanket.

Then I got up for some fizzy water and Rocket came along. (What are we doing now? Oh goody, you’re getting a drink of water. I’m so glad you are careful about hydration. What? Now we’re closing a window. Oh yay!) It took some time to get him settled down again. Just in time for me to realize I needed to pee. Repeat.

If you unsettle a cat, in my experience, she stalks off in high dudgeon and that’s the end of the episode. Apparently not so with a dog. It would have been an education for me to have a dog here for a week. The reason I thought I wanted a dog in the first place was to have a pet that would ride in the car with me and greet me with rapture every time I came in the house even if I had only just been to the mail-box. Apart from that I thought a dog was pretty much like a cat in that it could keep its own counsel once in a while. I guess not.

And then there’s the thing about dog poop. It may be said at once that I decisively failed that course. I wore a latex glove on the scoop hand and inserted that into the plastic bag. I turned my head, managing as I’ve done with dead rats, to pick it up without actually looking at it. This serves the dual purpose of keeping my nose upwind.

Listen, I have been scooping out cat litter boxes since 1983 and hardly give it a thought, even when Winston in his arthritic old age missed the box completely. That seems positively dignified compared to picking it up in public while it’s still warm.Dogs will do it in the road. Cats require privacy. When I came around the corner as Fang was preparing to enter his litter box, he paused, one paw in mid-air. He gave me a quelling look such as my mother would do after I’d said something sacreligious.

My friend’s house is not that far away. I rolled down the hill on my bicycle and was greeted by both animals, one more rapturously than the other. Afterwards I pedalled home up-hill. Or I drove there with stuff to work on and hung out with the boys in the lovely back yard garden.

Rocket and Fang get along as long as it is understood that Fang runs the show. To the more self-contained go the spoils.

 

FriendsGarden

July 16, 2017

Burn Before Weeding

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It all began with an email from Tim, my gardening friend. He’d been here working in the garden and then suddenly he wasn’t. Then I got an email with the subject heading “READ BEFORE WEEDING.” He related that he’d uncovered a hornet’s nest and had been stung numerous times so had gone home to treat the stings.

The nest was in a corner of the garden that had been neglected. The whole area was a matted mess. Ground cover had risen up and waved around in the air obscuring the entrance to the underground cave where the hornets paid homage to their queen. Tim tried to drown them before he ceded the field.

We didn’t want to spray with anything toxic because the neglected patch was close to the vegetable gardens. I recalled a Native American man who once came from the Millionaires’ Club to help me with some difficult work and had discovered a hornet’s nest in the ground. He told me that when he was growing up they always built a fire and smoked out the hornets.

We did the deed last Friday. I was excited all day, imagining the scene and thinking about what I would wear. What does one wear to a hornet burning? It was a warm day and I would need to be covered but I didn’t want to be hot. I decided on long pants and a windbreaker. Definitely shoes with socks, not sandals. And a big-brimmed hat.

Tim arrived in shorts, sandals and a T-shirt. And he was the one who had been stung!

“Aren’t you worried about them getting you again?”

“Nah.”

He raked out the area and irritated the hornets. It looked like hundreds of them swarming around, mad as humans. That’s a little hornet humor from the Hornet’s Toastmaster Joke Book. We had newspapers, kindling, dried sage and smudge sticks. That was Tim’s idea. I think my mentioning the Native American suggested it.

“Shall I get crystals, too?”

We set the fire. I have to admit I was the cautious one. I was afraid to get too close because the buzz sounded so mean. But we lit the newspaper and I backed up and let Tim toss it on them. We piled on the sage and kindling. Then we stood and watched. I wished we had waited til dark, invited Bill and Gwen, my neighbors, and had marshmallows. In retrospect that sounds a little Madame DeFarge-y.

Fire in neglected area

The fire burned itself out. Tim shoveled a hole. We watched the hornets crawling around in a daze (or so I claimed) and tried to determine if they were all heading to a particular opening. There certainly seemed to be a lot of them.

We lit another fire. Part of the reason I was excited about doing this was that I thought it was illegal in the city but that we were going to do it anyway.

“It’s not illegal.”

“It’s not?” I was disappointed to hear this.

“No. People can have fire pits.”

“Is that what this is?”

“Well, look at it. It’s a hole. There’s a fire in it. I do hope we don’t burn down the whole garden, though.”

Tim

Tim and I hung around and watched it. We pulled weeds and ground cover out of the neglected area, down on our knees amid the all the smoke. People walked by; there are a lot of dog walkers in my neighborhood.

“We look like a couple of dotty elderly people setting fire to their yard,” Tim said. “Somebody’s going to call the police!”

“Or Adult Protective Services.”

We got the giggles.

After several hours we decided we’d had enough and we’d see where we were in the morning. So that was Friday evening.

Today is Sunday. Depending on the time of day, there is either no activity or dozens of hornets being quite industrious. And there is another hornet’s nest in another (neglected) part of the yard. This time they got me. I was working my way around a circle of stones that delineate a patch where grow a bay tree and a Japanese snowbell when I backed into them. I heard the buzz, then I felt a bite on my upper arm. I moved out of the way and heard a buzz near my ear. I swiped at it. I heard it again. Next thing I was doing one of those St Vitus dances across my yard. The little bastard actually followed me into the sun room where I got it on the floor and stepped on it.

Gwen, my neighbor who knows something about just about everything said she sprayed a solution of peppermint oil on an underground hornet’s nest and hasn’t had a problem since. I sprayed the new nest with water but my heart wasn’t in it. I’ll get the peppermint oil. Maybe we’ll set another fire. Maybe I’ll call the Tilth hotline and get some actual expert advice.

Maybe I’ll leave them a couple of Andes mints. That seems a little Madame Defarge-y, too, but now they’ve gone after me, I don’t care.

Area of garden that hasn’t been neglected

 

 

 

 

 

 

CatsFriendsGarden

June 30, 2017

Saying Goodbye to Winston

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On Monday I said goodbye to the most vocal member of my household but one, that one being me. Winston was a big and insistent cat. In the past few days I have been a little surprised at how many people have told me, “Oh, no. He was my favorite.” He was to me, and in my friend Christina’s inimitable words, The Cat I was Responsible For.

I named him Winston in hopes he would grow into the name and that one day I could pose him with a cigar and bottle of gin. (I’m sure Churchill would be pleased to be remembered for that.) He did grow into a big, handsome guy but sadly, was a bit of a doofus, not the intellectual giant I hoped he’d be.

I never felt that we bonded. When he was a kitten, all he wanted to do was eat. A friend pointed out that he was just five weeks old and didn’t know he supposed to be bonding with me but it was a disappointment all the same. Yet it was ever so: I was disposable, the food supplier, that’s all. All his life he lived to eat.

He hated singing or music of any kind. I’m afraid I can trace that back to the first day he spent in my house with his litter mate, Edwina, a very early casualty. I had 13 students that day and at least half of them were singing students. By the end of the evening, Winston and Edwina were both hiding under my great grandfather’s big heavy desk.

From that day forward, if Winston was snoozing in the room when I started teaching, he would ostentatiously stalk out. You can imagine how much he loved my practicing the Queen of the Night arias I performed last spring. Towards the end when he was failing, he would first put his head up and say “Weah Weah,” then heave himself to his feet, plod over and plead with either me or my student to stop, and then stalk out of the room. He’d sit in the hall like a martyr until I closed the piano at the end of day. Then the “Weah, Weah” would begin again, this time for food.

I have to say something about the “Weah Weah” because it was a phenomenally irritating sound.  When I was trying to make the best of things, I would say to myself, “He thinks he’s singing. This should please you.” It pleased other people. When my friend Joan came over she always asked me to make him talk.

“Winston!”

“Weah.”

“Winston!”

Weah.”

My students loved it. They loved him. They loved it when he came into the room demanding food. “Weeeaah.”

He was a huge character, larger than life. A dreadnought with a basketball lurching from one side to the other when he walked.  You could pet him. He didn’t run haughtily off like Artemis did or scurry off in alarm like Freudy did when he was alive. Winston plopped himself on the floor and rolled over for anyone. He purred, he drooled. A big old doofus.

In his younger years, he was a Bringer-into-the House of enormous rats, mostly alive, to be let loose behind the refrigerator. The dead ones he mostly dined on al fresco and then brought his blood-smelly breath into my bed to sleep it off. But as he got older all that stopped. I don’t miss it.

He liked a cigarette out on the front porch at 9:15 every evening. Towards the end when he stopped insisting on it, I played a game with him where I put a marvelous little cat treat called a Tumbler in front of him. He’d say “Weah” and eat it. I put another Tumbler two feet away. He’d say “Weah” and lumber over and eat it. In this way and after about eight Tumblers, I could trick him out the sun-room door. I’d make him stay out for half an hour. Otherwise he might decide he needed that cigarette after all and he’d want out at 2:00 in the morning.

He had an enormous Thing on one eye-lid. It was the size of a large pea and it filled with blood until it hung over his eye. Then he’d try to get rid of it and would bleed all over the house while I followed (if I was lucky) with cold wet rags to staunch the Thing and to soak up the blood on the couch and carpet.  It would stop bleeding, heal over and fill up with blood again. Repeat. This went on for months and months.The vet said she’d never seen anything like it before but that he wouldn’t die of it.

He died of the two-shot solution as my friend Tim calls it. Winston’s kidneys were failing and I needed a garden shovel to get the clumps out of the litter box every day, sometimes twice a day. He’d lost a lot of weight although I think I was the only one who noticed he was no longer 20 plus pounds.  His beautiful coat started looking really shaggy. He slept all the time and looked miserable when he was awake.

I arranged for my Vet to come to the house. I decided that one thing I could do for this cat with the irritating whine who hated music was to not first terrorize him by a car ride and then have him killed. I couldn’t concentrate on anything on Monday so I finally stopped trying. I curled up on the couch with Winston and looked for something to stream on television: Gone with the Wind.

I’ve seen this movie a dozen times. The last time I watched it I decided it was stupid and offensive and hadn’t aged well at all. But I watched it with Winston just the same. It was comforting because I knew what was going to happen right down to a lot of the dialogue. Winston dozed and purred and we sat there together. When it came to the scene where everyone (that is to say, the white people) in Atlanta were reading the lists of those killed or wounded in action, I started to cry and pretty much didn’t stop until the vet came, administered the second shot and said “He’s gone.”

Tim had dug the grave a few days before in the little pet cemetery under my 50-year old lilacs where one of my cats and various neighbors’ cats are resting in peace. Gwen came across the street to help me bury Winston near her cat Lucy who we laid to rest a few months ago. We lowered him into the grave and then stood looking at him.

“It’s not deep enough,” Gwen said.

I hauled the body out and got the hysterical giggles. “This is like Death at a Funeral or something,” I said.

I got a shovel. Gwen dug energetically until she’d added another foot and a half and I let poor Winston back down into the grave. Then I sat with my hands in the dirt and breathed a bit before letting go of a handful of it. It was relief to finally know he was all tucked away down there. A friend had given me a trillium recently and I hadn’t planted it anywhere yet so I planted it on the grave.

Gwen and I had the first of two wakes that day with some 100 proof Scotch she had given me for my birthday. Later my friend Andrea came with flowers for the grave and more Scotch. Artemis who had witnessed the shot and the burial from afar, curled up with me.

Before I turned on Gone with the Wind, I said to Winston, “When you get where you’re going, I want you to let me know you’re okay.”

In the days since then, it has felt empty around the house. I’ve thought about Winston and I’ve asked, “Are you okay, Winston?”

Pretty much all I’m getting is “Weah, weah.”

I think he’s singing.

Winston reading Henry IV Part I

 

 

 

 

 

 

FriendsWriting

June 11, 2017

Memorializing Whidbey

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It’s been another contemplative ten days on Whidbey Island. I guess I have become one of those hothouse artiste types: “Oh, I can only write on my island.” Except I’m home now and I’m writing this. I need to memorialize the week.

Memorialize. That’s a word we all know now—those of us that follow the drama in Washington D.C. One feature of my time on the island is that I did not hear any news until 5:00 each afternoon, at which time I went down the hill to Tommie’s house to watch Chris Hayes. With the exception of Thursday, the day of the much bally-hooed James Comey testimony before the Senate intelligence committee. I didn’t want to waste my morning with soap operas, which everyone knows are for the afternoon anyway so on Thursday I started in on all the commentary and clips at 3:00.

My days on Whidbey began at 5:30ish. I’d get up, check for visible deer, make tea and read for an hour. Then I worked on my novel until noon. I always write in the meditation hall above the apartment where I stay in the Buddha House. I am surrounded by meditation cushions and Buddhist art. There is an atmosphere there that invites focus. I am thrilled to be 75% of the way through the first draft with the remaining chapters more or less outlined. It’s quite an accomplishment, given that I first tried to start this book in 1997.

Writing in Meditation Hall

There were other accomplishments: I finished a bottle of Scotch, I read three books and listened to two on tape. I painted, I took two voice lessons and I walked in the woods every day. I wore the same clothes over and over; when I got back to Seattle, I transferred them with thumb and forefinger directly from bag to washing machine without actually looking at them. I didn’t wear any jewelry or make-up, which meant that I didn’t have eyebrows for ten days.

A Walk in the Woods

The animals didn’t care. I love the birds and animals up there. There were rabbits everywhere, more than I’ve seen in years. There was a bird couple setting up housekeeping in the porch of the Buddha House directly above the front door. They had positive fits every time I opened the door at an inconvenient time for them.

On my second day there, I put my lawn chair (I always take a lawn chair, this being a retreat center, not a resort) under the porch roof so I could read quietly and hope deer would stroll by. The two birds flew back and forth under the roof, chirping indignantly. Finally the female settled into her nest above my head and the male sat on a post a foot away and scolded. He chirped to the wide world to look at this outrageous creature sitting here in her lawn chair. Then he turned toward me and tried to shame me. Day after day this happened until finally the scolding was something to do but he had forgotten why he was doing it.

Giving Me Grief

I met the farmer who owns the goats across the road. I stood with him at the gate to the goat pen, while Mishka, the big, drooling white dog who herds the goats within an inch of their lives, drooled on me. The farmer told me all the goat names. The ones I remember are Springer, who was born on the first day of spring and just a few weeks before I last stayed at the retreat and Pot Roast, named because they were planning to eat him. Too much information.

Mishka, the Drooler

Huge bonus: I got permission to feed the goats. The farmer told me they liked alder and maple leaves. So every day before I walked in the woods, I visited the goats with a fistful of alder leaves. I had biscuits for Mishka, which I threw as far as I could so he would leave me and the goats in peace for a few minutes.

Springer

Then I tried to keep track of which goats got how many leaves. One of them was especially piggish—I think that was Pot Roast. Springer, the littlest one, didn’t apparently understand what was happening. None of the older goats seemed incline to clue him in so even though I tried to get a leaf into his mouth, he always lagged too far back. He was still nursing and judging by the size of that udder, I’d say he’s not lacking for treats.

They have gentle mouths, the goats. I learned right away that I wasn’t in danger of getting a finger taken off. They sucked the leaves into their mouth and their lips brushed my hands like a kiss. Their inquiring faces gazed at me. Tommie says the goats have a preternatural quality about them.

The Flirt

Then there were the deer. There were three fawns running around like toddlers. The only distractions during my writing time were the times they strayed into view. One magical morning, all of them came into the field outside the Buddha House: a pair of twins, a single fawn and their mothers. I inched across the balcony off the meditation hall and stood in the sun and watched them frolic—I guess the word is gambol—in the grass, the does joining in. It was pageantry. No, it was pagan ritual. It was adorable.

The Single Fawn

Then there was The Terrible Night. It was the one night Tommie was not down the hill in her house; she was in Seattle. I had been watching Lawrence O’Donnell with her right before she left for the ferry. Walking back up the hill I saw another fawn —a fourth one, not a toddler, more like 6th Grader– lying low in some tall grass under a big maple tree. Its eyes were huge as it met mine. My heart started to hurt. Was it lost? Was it in pain? Scared? Well obviously it was scared. I told myself that the doe was around somewhere and would join it soon. But it weighed on me when I tried to sleep that night. Sleep was further disturbed by the sounds of planes flying overheard for what seemed like hours. Oak Harbor has a military base further up the island and as I finally drifted off, I wondered if our so-called president had provoked a war.

The next morning I couldn’t concentrate for worrying about the fawn. I walked down the hill in pajamas and stocking feet to reassure myself that it had joined its mother. It was still there. Had it been lying there in terror for 12 hours? Maybe it was hurt. Now I really couldn’t concentrate. Not knowing one single thing about deer, I tried to take a bowl of water to it. It leaped up in alarm and ran toward some bushes. So it wasn’t hurt.

I went back to my writing. The next animal to stray into view was a fluffy, but dirty terrier. Ah, Bert, the Wonderful Neighbor, was walking his dogs. I went out to tell him about the fawn.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s lost.”

“You’re seen it?”

“I saw it day before yesterday and didn’t think much. But when it was still running around yesterday, I knew the mother had lost the scent. The mother might be hurt. Now it’s either going to survive or a coyote will get it.”

I told him about trying to take it some water and to his credit, he didn’t laugh at me. “It can be heartbreaking,” he said. “But he’s probably safer here in the retreat than anywhere.”

I was grateful for that reassurance. I started calling the fawn Bambi. Because it had lost its mother.

In the afternoon I did some watercolor downstairs at the kitchen table. The doe with the single fawn came around the corner of the Buddha House and practically looked in the window at me. I stayed still and watched her and her little toddler climb onto a grassy bank. The fawn went into a mound of brush and the doe moved off, just leaving it there. I thought I would go out of my mind.

“You have to stop this,” I told myself and I pulled the shade so I couldn’t see what happened next.

I talked to Gary who was working on the retreat. He told me that when fawns are little, they haven’t any scent. The mother hides them somewhere so she can eat a proper meal in peace, and then comes back for them.

Ah. I breathed a little easier after that. But when Tommie came back from Seattle I unloaded the whole drama on her, crying and feeling like the entire world was too brutal a place for me.

I said, “If you get a fawn sighting, will you let me know?”

“Well, Bert has the twins with him,” she said as though she and Bert were sharing custody. “They’re mostly around his place.”

I did see all the fawns again before I left, including Bambi who was back in the tall grass the next day. I couldn’t stop myself from checking on her a third time at which she leapt up and ran off. She stopped and looked back at me the way my cats do when they see me coming at them with a syringe of amoxicillin or flea treatment.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I said. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”

When I said goodbye to Tommie, she said, “The animals are going to miss your spirit among them.”

“My immediate goal is to get out of here without seeing another deer,” I said wryly.

Another Morning Visitor

One of the Many

Cut it out, Mom

Pot Roast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FriendsSingingSongsTeaching

May 1, 2017

The Neurotic Zone

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Despite its title, this is not a post about politics. It’s about the weirdness of being a performer. I used to do a lot of performing and the truth is I didn’t enjoy it. The feedback I got was that I looked and sounded poised (for the most part) but inside I was terrified and miserable. On the morning of a day in which I had a performance I would awake with the thought that today was the day of my execution. If I could get though it alive, I would never agree to sing anywhere ever again.

My friend Nina says that music operates in a circle and you haven’t closed it, you haven’t had the full experience, until you share it. In my early experiences as a singing student, I felt pushed into performance long before I was ready for it. No one asked me what I wanted to do. Educators assumed that of course the end of all music lessons was to perform. As a singer and educator, I agree with Nina in large part because of her use of the word share instead of perform. There are different ways to share. Teaching is sharing. I think I make a better teacher than a performer.

Still the desire to perform was buried somewhere in me. I kept at it for years and years until performance anxiety won and I stopped for a long time. When I began singing in public again, I chose easy venues where the audience was in the Smile and Nod Category. I didn’t consciously think that singing at a little church or for my students was a stepping stone to anything else. It was its own thing. What counted was the song and how I sang it. This was a good decision on my part; it allowed me to explore the difference between singing privately –and having ecstatic experiences—and sharing myself with others.  I took my time. I only shared on my own terms and as I felt ready. That’s been my policy for the past twenty years. I kept working privately until parts of me caught up with other parts of me, the stars aligned and desire asserted herself.

Four months ago I agreed to sing the two Queen of the Night arias in a concert performance of The Magic Flute. This concert was a project after my own heart: my colleague Susan Strick conceived the idea of putting together an opera “by community for community.” Susan is a like a lint roller among musicians, singers and theater folk in Seattle. She rolls over town and collects talent. Thus she put together a group of teachers, students, professionals and amateurs to perform The Magic Flute stitched together by an engaging narrator, Ed Mast.

I had sung both arias in the 1980s so I knew them. I got them out, memorized them and then spent two months wallowing in the luxury of discovering, playing with and refining them. Tommie (beloved teacher) and I could spend hours on two or three notes, bits of phrases, dipthongs, and always the chiaroscuro of tones: the ratio of the light and dark sides of a pitch. This work brings its own high; I go into an altered state.

Though I am approaching the entire concept of performing differently than I used to, one thing that hasn’t changed is the neurotic zone I enter into when a performance is looming. I have conversations like the following:

Tim, my gardening compatriot: “Is there a time this weekend when we can get more compost?”

Me (flustered): No, I can’t do anything this weekend. I’m singing in ten days.”

Or when I think about my cousin in Wisconsin (Hi, June!) who I haven’t talked to in ages. I think I want to schedule a call (we always make dates) but then I think, “No, I can’t do anything til this performance is over.”

I entered the neurotic zone two weeks before The Magic Flute concert. In addition to my routine practicing I started going around checking my voice. Checking my voice. You know: to see if it’s still there.

Once during a rehearsal when I was singing the soprano solos in Schubert’s Mass in G, the conductor caught me sitting alone, (neurotically)massaging the little muscles around my hyoid bone, which if you don’t know connects the root of the tongue with the top of the voice box.

“It’s still there,” he said.

In the neurotic zone, everything is heightened: apprehensions about getting a head cold and wanting to wear a respiratory mask around my children students—that would be classic neighborhood piano teacher eccentricity. Checking my car tires just in case one of them might be flat the day of the performance. Just keeping a lid on this kind of stuff takes a lot of energy. I tell myself it’s all an overflow of the anticipatory excitement of a performance.

I’ve learned to cope with actual performance anxiety in the way that I practice. Whether it’s a single tone or a whole aria, I arrange my mind like this: “This is all there is, this tone, this phrase, this sensation. My voice is singing and this is what it feels like.” I try to inhabit every tone and every moment. Singing in front of an audience is a continuation of my practices, the difference being people are listening and watching.

There is a kind of performing that involves putting on a show and dazzling the audience and it’s a very popular kind of performing for both the performer and the audience. I don’t find it compelling. Back when I used to get so frightened it’s because I was trying to put on some kind of show that I knew wasn’t true to who I was.

What I find compelling in a performance is vulnerability. And paradoxically, allowing myself to feel vulnerable in front of an audience has reduced the performance anxiety to manageable levels.

We sang The Magic Flute concert yesterday and it was magical. The continuum of ability and experience displayed made my teacher’s heart overflow. The whole process of music education and performance was there and it was a glorious thing to be part of.

I sang my arias rather better than I expected to, better than in the rehearsal and I had been satisfied with that (with thanks to Nicole Truesdell who accompanied me.) All the playing around with the music and the tones and phrases became the material of performance. This is what singing is to me: the continual exploration of a note, a phrase, a song, an aria, whether alone or in front of people. There’s vulnerability to that but it’s also freeing. I’ve nothing to live up to.

My big take away from this amazing experience is a sense of how much I don’t know. There is no end to what I could do with those two arias if my technique were up to it. There is no end to what I could learn about singing, performance, stage protocol. I’m lost on a voyage in which I feel more and more at home. Give or take a neurosis or two.

Queen of the Night, not currently enraged.