though not quite as at-home as the cranes walking the edges, we know this pond. we knew it as a marsh. we knew it as dry dirt. we knew it with mulch strewn throughout as they eradicated invasive species. we watched as the rains began to fill it. we listened to the quiet wind ripple across its surface. and then, one day, we heard the first frogs. though we cannot see them, the orchestra pit is filled with frogs in chorus. the static becomes a symphony.
such is the way of a choir. for well over three decades, i conducted groups of people who chose to sing – in choir. they gathered, sitting in folding chairs cold with mid-week evening thermostat dips. they gathered, weary from their days at work or home, filled with activities of responsibility, of life. they gathered, to become a symphony.
the thing about choir rehearsals is that – with good leadership – they go from a meeting of a group of individuals to a collaboration of musicians, from quiet chatter to boisterous song, from people who possibly feel ill-at-ease to people whose voices are heard, whose hearts are seen. choir rehearsals are community events and – led with joy – become places that are generative, places that are accepting not competitive, places of great learnings and tremendous laughter, places that are spaces filled with concern for the other, lifting up of each other, a place with a mission of goodness, a mission of symphony.
i’ve missed being a choir director. it’s been over two years now and the lack of vocal choirs, ukuleles, handbells, worship bands is palpable for me. directing was always about the community – building it, reinforcing it – life-giving, loving. my resume shows seven churches along the way. seven communities in which i offered all i could give, responding to their individual needs, their particular circumstances, their strengths and their weaknesses. seven fluid rivers of music-making.
i opened my laptop to the facebook tab this morning and this picture was waiting. in the way that facebook picks and chooses memories for you to zip back to, days of throwback, this photo was labeled as “8 years ago” and immediately i was there. it was a celebratory post for the “world premier” performance of the ukulele band. a rainbow of color and delight and what an arc it had.
the best parts of a director’s job as a conductor are to see the coming-together of community, the coming-together of practice, the coming-together of confidence, the coming-together in ensemble. those moments when it all syncs into a piece of music, a song, into utter joy expressed by melody and strummed chords. these are defining moments, moments in the groove, moments when everything jibes, moments when all is in alignment. these ukuleles were a gift both to people who had played or sang before and people who had never experienced the camaraderie of music performance. these ukuleles were a gift to people who watched. i was happy to see this ‘memory’ in my facebook feed early today.
scrolling further, coffee next to me, and facebook was full of the olympics and stories of great athleticism, stories of winning, stories of not-winning.
in the last couple days simone biles withdrew from olympic events. she got a case of the “twisties” she said. in simple terms, as i am not an athlete, this is a dangerous and precarious situation when an athlete mid-air has a time of blankness and is forced to rely on muscle memory so as not to get hurt. her vault suffered and she, aware of the sheer importance of this body she had trained and relied on, turned to her trainers and coaches and stopped. they respected her decision. they respected her physical health, the importance of every appendage as an athlete. they respected that her decision to withdraw was protecting her athletic ability in the future. they did not ask her to place her physical form at risk. they did not label her decision to withdraw and rest that which gave her her life’s work – her body and her mind – as not working for them, as a demerit costing her payroll or esteem. instead, to their credit, those in power trusted and honored her decision and supported her in it, no doubt encouraging her. she placed her physical and mental health over her aspiration to win more metal and, in those decisions, has probably made more impact on the world than maybe anything else she’s done (even while recognizing that she has leaped and vaulted and hand-springed her way into most-outstanding-gymnast-ever-dom). respecting her decision and respecting her mental and physical health, not questioning but relying on her professionalism, her wisdom, her intuition, her knowledge and experience and – this biggie – upholding the value of keeping her safe and thereby keeping her future as an athlete wide open – this is vastly important and profoundly absolute.
scrolling further down facebook i came across a post about kerri strug. after a 1996 olympic vault during which she drastically injured herself, her coach insisted she go back and do it again. despite her best intuition, despite the long-lasting injury she would sustain as a result of not resting after her fall, she was pushed to go on. in some not-honoring-her-but-placing-importance-on-power moment, she pushed on. 1996. 2021. reading posts comparing these, it’s evident there has been some growth. it’s also evident there hasn’t.
i scrolled back up to the top of my feed. i stared at the circle of ukuleles. in these moments post ukulele-band-rainbow-arc, in these moments as covid continues to wreak its wreckage and its wearying challenges, i hope that those people who were in the band still take out their ukuleles. i miss them and our music-making. i hope that muscle memory reminds them how to play. i hope they sing. i hope they remember all those stunning moments of cohesion – making music.
it’s interesting the juxtaposition of what you see on facebook on any given morning.
like a 1960s romper room book, if you turn my notebook upside down and open it from the back you will find a list. it is a list of projects, stacking up. this list is unlike my other lists, unlike the cleaning-the-basement and attic and closets list, unlike the practical bill-paying list, unlike the job-application list. this is a list of creative projects, things either already started or on the plate of my heart, waiting to be addressed, waiting to begin. it is not unlike a beautiful stack of stones, a cairn of my heart.
and so every now and then i turn over this old yellow college-ruled spiral with craig sharpie-printed on the front, a leftover from some school year. i flip it to its cardboard back and open it like those backward books and add something to my growing stack. unique rocks, with no detailed explanations…they make me dream. they are the play to play.
yesterday at OT i mentioned our smack-dab cartoon. my OT was surprised. apparently, drawing and publishing a cartoon in any format is unusual. when i told her it was one of a few cartoons we have done together, j asked me to describe it. i told her that it was about being smack in the middle of middle age and, since she is, i showed her last saturday’s smack-dab. she laughed aloud – a lot – and said, “so you don’t just go to the grocery store together?” that made me laugh aloud since it seems the cairn of our life together is the stacked stones of these projects we do, holding hands and jumping, in creation, on trails, and, yes, in the grocery store too.
it is with some certainty that i know i will awake with new ideas, that blowing my hair dry – for some reason a time of great creative juju – will bring new stones to stack, fresh energy to explore.
it was in one of those moments i came up with starting a ukulele band where i was employed. i had, on a whim, purchased a tiny black soprano ukulele while visiting with dearest friends in nashville, indiana. i started messing around with it and, one morning while standing in the bathroom in front of the long mirror blowing my hair dry with thoughts swirling in my mind, realized that everyone should (and could) play the ukulele and that there could not be a more perfect addition to the music program i was directing. when i offered ukulele packages for sale through pacetti’s, the local music shop, and announced a rehearsal starting date, i suspected that maybe 3 or 4, or maybe even 6 would sell. all told, we sold over 60. our band gathered each week and in the summer met first in the local lakefront park and later, for years, on our back patio, more sheltered from the wind that would blow our music here and there. it was joy – total joy – watching people who had never played any instrument pick up their brightly colored ukuleles, learn chords and songs and play and sing in community. amazing stuff.
a couple days ago facebook brought up one of those memory photos that show up as you first open the site – this one from three years ago. it was a photo from ukes on the summer patio that someone had taken and posted of me. in the middle of the patio, perched on a stool in front of a music stand loaded with music and clipped with clothespins, ukulele in hand, i was in full laughter. for this was a cairn. and, judging by the laughter that always surrounded us in those rehearsals and others, it was a cairn for others as well. i re-posted it and felt wistful. grief is like that.
just as backpacking seems to bring ardor to our trail-pal-on-video-who-we-have-never-met joey coconato, these projects-following-the-cairns bring us a sense of who we are, what we are. there are times that the flame of a project wanes, the idea conks, just the thought of it makes us laugh till we are snorting. but those other times – the times we can see the cairn clearly, we head to it, it keeps us on track – those are the times that we are playing to play, that we are being true to who we are.
i hadn’t looked at the original since he extracted what he felt was a better painting. the 9×12 canvas he just mounted is, oh goodness, a close-up of my face, though fortunately painted as more of a profile than a full face straight-on. in its previous iteration it was part of a painting of me directing a ukulele band rehearsal in our home, on a humid summer evening when all gathered here to play and practice and talk and share lives. now it’s a lovely small painting and, though it is of me, i can see what he likes about it.
i hadn’t looked at the original until just now when he came upstairs with this photograph to use in today’s blogpost. with enthusiasm and laughing, he said, “let’s use this today!” i reached over to look at the photograph on the iphone in his hand and my heart dropped.
this is the way i feel about my previous job. cut out. my face was cut out, leaving behind the legacy and fun and music of the ukulele and, for that matter, all the other music that was created and offered with love and celebrated and made a community joyful. simply cut out. boxcutter-straight-edge-cut-out. erased.
as i keep glancing at this photograph to write about the image, it doesn’t change. as a matter of fact, my reaction is becoming more intense instead of lessening. it takes my breath away. it’s bracing.
i have tried to explain to others what this felt like – to articulate this cutting-out. i know that many people experience downsizing and rightsizing and personnel changes in their positions. mostly these are jobs in corporate america with possibly six-figure incomes and benefits, healthcare and 401k’s, though this is not always the case. there is often not a heavy emotional tie, though this is not always the case. there is often not a family community, though this is not always the case. there is often not a deep sense of loyalty and long-term commitment to growth of the organization, though this is not always the case.
but in my case, in this position that had no benefits whatsoever and a salary that wouldn’t touch six figures even if it had whopping ten percent increases for the next decade, in this position heavy on emotional ties and family community and loyalty and commitment and heart, this trimmed painting depicts how it feels. still.
stunningly, without melodrama, just a straight-up two-dimensional portrait of an emotion in a three-dimensional world, i have now found the way to articulate it – in a simple image.
david knows that i would get in little-baby-scion or big red without hesitation and drive across the country – despite any circumstance, in rain, sleet, snow or ice, night or day, day or night, without delay – if i were to see either of my children for even three seconds when we arrived. just 3 seconds. because – yes – any time i can say “i saw you for like 3 seconds” about my daughter or my son, i can also say “and it made my day”.
it can make all the difference.
my niece put my sweet momma on facetime over the phone. momma was in the hospital and things were serious. we were leaving and going to be there in just a couple days. but we didn’t make it in time. yet, i had those moments – more than three seconds but less than the years of lifetime i wanted. i saw her face for like more-than 3 seconds and it made my day.
the last 3 seconds i saw my dad, i took his pale and fragile hand in mine and told him he was the best. period. and my sweet poppo, mere hours away from leaving this earth, whispered back to me, “i love you, kook.” i memorized his voice as i left his bedside. oh, those 3 seconds.
it’s unusually quiet here on wednesday nights. we had ukulele band rehearsals those evenings and, since this time of virtual life, zoom rehearsals were a good bit of loving community in our week. i miss these people and i miss making music with them. i miss their conversation and the lifebits they shared each time we gathered. it’s funk-worthy, these silent wednesdays. and then…”i think of you every wednesday night,” he texted. like 3 seconds of text and it made my day.
the sun came out on the trail the other day. we hadn’t seen it for days. grey upon grey, the dismal became lodged in us. it’s hard – it’s just us and dogdog and babycat. we do know even in that we are fortunate. we all desire more. to be surrounded by people we love – light itself. when the rays streamed through the trees over the trail, i felt it on my face first. we looked at each other, smiles coming to our faces, cold from the bitter dampness. “the sun!” we exclaimed at once. it stayed out for a mere 3 seconds before it slid behind the next bank of clouds. but it was like 3 seconds and it made our day.
maybe we’ll go back. this sassy coffee pot sits at one of our favorite antique shops and drew my eye. we’ll be sure to know where to put it and, perhaps, how to use it before we maybe go get it.
we were on our way to cape cod and the sign salvage chic antiques stopped us. four old aluminum coffee pots later, we left the store. they are now part of a five-aluminum-coffee-pot collection on a shelf in our kitchen; instead of a canister set, these coffee pots keep all our different teas easily accessible.
anyone who knows us knows that we love our coffee. anyone who knows us knows that we also love re-purposing old stuff. but not the fancy stuff. old aluminum coffee pots, old black vintage suitcases, old wooden boxes. they are the treasures around us. they hold special mementos, nespresso coffee pods, clothespins for the ukulele band, art supplies, rocks we have collected on beaches, in woods, from high sandstone precipices or red rock canyons deep. they are history and they are new. both true.
when we need a break, a few moments to lose ourselves, we will either hike or go to one of our local favorite antique shops. things of worry will gently fall off as we walk through woods or aisles of things-that-remind-us of other times, memories, or maybe inspire us with a beckon to be brought home.
we choose carefully and deliberately. for ourselves and for the gifts we get others. it’s never the fancy stuff, but it’s the stuff that stops us, draws our eye, beckons to be purchased and re-treasured.
i went back to take this picture. i’m not quite sure why, but the word “loop” on the steps struck me as funny. truth be told, it was a piece of information; on the metra steps in chicago it was directing us to the train that would take us toward the loop.
there was this time we visited My Boy in chicago. we took the train down, got off at the ravenswood stop, and walked what seemed-like-miles dragging a rollie-bag behind us with all the ingredients for pasta and homemade sauce. after a fun day together, we dragged our now-empty suitcase back to the train and waited on the platform for the train home, unwittingly sitting on the wrong side of the platform. it was a mere two minutes before the train came that we realized our error and ran down the stairs, down the sidewalk, across the street against the traffic light and back up the other set of stairs to the right platform. it was comical, i’m sure. we couldn’t even pretend to be cool-calm-collected-experienced-aloofly-confident passengers. we were total geeks, running for the train, laughing. i’m sure there were signs (we saw them our next trip down) but we hadn’t noticed. and so, the word “loop” on the steps made me laugh. “northbound” on the steps would have helped.
music-in-its-written-form is kind of like this. there are directions all over the place: repeat signs, time signatures, words like coda, DC al fine, DS. it’s a confusing mess for the newbie. our ukulele band navigates this all the time now; we use lead sheets in lieu of just chord-and-lyric sheets. we cheer each time we end the song at the same place and at the same time. for the seasoned musician, these directions are run-of-the-mill; for the music editor, these directions save a lot of space and paper. for the ukulele band, which now pays attention to these bits of directive material, it’s like writing “loop” on the steps.
it’s all just one big lesson in following directions, isn’t it? i guess the key is laughter.
just last saturday evening, out on cape cod, we lingered over seafood and glasses of wine with jonathan, our bass player. we were sitting around his table, chatting about music.
he told us about a group of musicians he rehearses with on an irregular basis. they play a wide variety of instruments and they all just gather casually together and jam on some “good music”. “…and once in a while we play the same stuff…” he stated. his voice trailed off as he thought about what he had just said and we all laughed. we can picture a whole group of jonathans in the room – all exuberant and, each, lovers of all music, all pick-ready, mouthpiece-ready, reed-ready, hands-poised-over-the-keys-ready. that kind of enthusiasm shouldn’t be curbed or restrained. the sheer joy of playing – now that’s the reason to be all together. it’s not about playing all the notes on the page, playing them all perfectly at the same time, playing them with no mistakes. it’s about heart. it’s about the breaths and the rests of silence, the flip-flop your heartbeat makes when soaring notes come together in a sweeping harmony, the tears you get in your eyes when something you just played or heard is sublimely sweet, dynamically touching, deeply resonant, the belly laugh with the ridiculously dissonant moment.
the ukulele sip ‘n strums are about just that. if we can choose to teach anything at those sip ‘n strums, i would choose to teach just these things. the things of joy. music is all about individual hearts…coming together with the immense gift of twelve notes at our literal fingertips. no matter what we play, we are playing the same stuff.
we knew before we really started planning that we would be married in jeans and boots. and anyone who knows us could tell you that we would definitely be wearing black tops, in david’s case – a shirt and jacket, in my case – a long tunic. it’s just us.
we went to the frye boot store in chicago long before our wedding day, combining a visit with The Boy with our errand. the girl-boots i tried on weren’t right…although i love all the high frye boots, we had a vision for these, the one item we each splurged on in our apparel for The Day. the boots needed to be totally dance-worthy, kind of worn-looking, lower-ankle boots. i ended up buying boy-boots; it helps when you have big feet, lol, because you can find boy-sizes that fit. we wore them inside the house dancing many times to break them in. but never put them on to go anywhere. we were saving them.
three years ago today, we donned our boots, our new ripped jeans and our black tops. we individually walked down the aisle to the front of the church and a new life commitment. The Girl, The Boy, 20, arnie and ptom stood in front with us and then we skipped back down the aisle, past pews filled with pieces of our hearts, to the ukulele band playing what a wonderful world. we drove our little baby scion to the historic beachhouse where we had a food truck, a dj playing music people danced to for hours and hours, hula hoops and crayons, wine and daisy cupcakes, spotted cow and quinoa tabouli, brownies and a bonfire on the beach. our family and friends – our community- brought us across the bridge from single to married; it was in a key of celebration, of support.
never did we once think that life would just be like that from there on out. for life is life and challenges arise. we are not exempt from that. but our community stands with us, silently reminding us that they were there, they witnessed the moment. their belief and our love forge together. it takes a village to be married. we are grateful for that village, for anyone who has nudged us to see Us.
and any time we forget that very important day, we pull our wedding boots out of the front of our closets, put them on and remember.
about six years ago i was in the sweet downtown of nashville, indiana browsing with linda and bill. we stopped at a music store and i fell in love with a little black ukulele. i bought it and played around with this tiny instrument, a lot lighter to tote around than a piano.
a little over five years ago i decided to offer a ukulele band at trinity, where i am the minister of music. thinking that perhaps four or six people would sign up, over the years we have sold 50-60 ukes! we have a consistent band that rehearses year round and plays at least once a month in the service. it’s a blast! and it’s a way for people who maybe have had no prior musical experience to play an instrument. i read that “the ukulele is a portal through which only happy people can pass.” (uke muster) personal experience makes me add that there is no way to play the ukulele and not smile. they go hand in hand. what’s not idyllic about that?
under the umbrella of two-artists-making-stuff-for-humans (which includes doing stuff with or for humans), recently we decided to move this glee out further into the world. we held our first UKULELE SIP ‘N STRUM last friday night at a local winery. in the same vein as a ‘paint and sip’, people registered for a lesson and a glass of fine wine; they ordered their ukulele in their favorite color and, with the help of pacetti’s – our favorite downtown music store – we delivered them that night. it was a blast!
we are booking the next dates and are taking the SIP ‘N STRUM out – all over – into different venues, people’s homes, even corporate events. the chance for people to learn and smile and play music and sip wine and sing is what we offer. as virtuoso ukulele player jake shimabukuro says, “if everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place.” we couldn’t agree more!
so let us know if you want to book a UKULELE SIP ‘N STRUM. we’re ready! pick in hand! and we promise – it’ll be a blast! 🙂