Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Violin Project, Year 2: Notes from the First Day of Class

Seventeen is a big number. Seven returning students, ten new students. When I group them that way it all looks very manageable. All together they look like more than the sum of their parts. 

They were excited, yesterday, coming in. Eyes big. The new ones wanted to know when they would have violins. They are ready to play concertos. One child informed me, very seriously, “I’m doing violin because my mom said I had to.” One gave me five examples of How Fast A Learner I Am. We will move slowly, and that is hard but at the same time easier—so much less overwhelming than “Here’s your violin, this is how you hold it. Here’s your bow, this is how you hold it. Now play.” And I think we will have fun, regardless of how we ended up together in the first place.

I don’t know who was more nervous, the kids or I. For them I want to project calm and confidence, but every year is new, the territory fresh and a little wild, and every year I wonder if I am really up to this new year of teaching. I have trouble feeling calm.

And then we start, and everything’s okay.

We began yesterday with background music (Twinkle Theme and Variations) and coloring (treble clefs) and snacks, and worked our way into learning each others’ names, standing still, listening to and following instructions. The newcomers will be painting the fence, Karate Kid-style, for a while, and that tends to fly in the face of young peoples’ expectations. But it is like the scarf I have been knitting for months and months: day-to-day the progress is slow, and certainly not our culture’s usual way of acquiring things. But I got used to the slowness, and I enjoy the process. Recently—suddenly, it seemed—I noticed that the thing has length. Someday I will wear it and forget how long it took to make. Someday, suddenly, we will look at each other over our violins and say, “Look how much we’ve learned!”

Here’s what else I forget, and have to keep re-discovering: it’s not just every year that is new. Every day is new. Getting to know each other, fence-painting, problem-solving—we are in it together. What luck. I can’t wait.

For more about The Violin Project, click here, or visit our Facebook page.

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Friday, August 8, 2014

On How Today was a Lovely Day

There was a time when I looked around my home and could not see any of my own influence on it, could not find any sign of myself in my surroundings. There was a time when I believed that asserting myself into my own world would cost me nearly everything. It did cost a lot, it turns out, but it was worth it. Do those words sound simple? They are not. There is more behind them than I know how to talk or write about right now, but they are all I have to offer. 

Today I felt this great freedom to do the next thing in front of me, and to keep plugging away at these things I love, and to let the rain wash everything else away. Today I baked a birthday cake, made some headway with my teaching schedule, saw my kids playing in a cool drizzle with bright umbrellas. Husband and I planned a birthday party. Oldest showed me the pictures he took with his iPod, Youngest colored something intricate and colorful, Middle brought me a blade of grass dotted with rain so I could take a picture. And tonight we had the briefest dance party, in honor of Youngest’s last night as a seven year-old. 

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Saturday, August 2, 2014

So—July was a whole lot of traveling.

Now we’re home. A good part of this week has been spent puzzling out a schedule for the school year—for my teaching, for the kids’ school and activities, for everything else. I’m wondering how safe it is to drink lots of coffee while doing this. I was so excited to pay for the kids’ swim club on time, on top of all the Figuring Things Out! I did yesterday morning that I accidentally put the car into drive instead of reverse at the aquatic center and nearly drove down a big grassy hill. 

This time of year is a second January—looking forward, looking back. Last month’s travels are still fresh. The school year ahead is all theory, the outlines of it neatly arranging themselves on a grid. Things will not look this tidy in the thick of it, but that’s where the art lies, right? This is a thought I will try to hold on to.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Llonio the Gatherer from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. I read the books to Oldest and Middle years ago, and Llonio has stayed close—with his approach to life, his skill at using what came to him, the beauty of his outlook: “Trust your luck, Taran Wanderer. But don’t forget to put out your nets!” Because I keep running into this: What You Have and What You Don’t Have are two very important and special things. Yes, both can be harsh, painful, devastating. But you can also make magic, when you start playing with the two. This, too, is something to hold on to.

In the spirit of Llonio, I want to share some of my gatherings from this summer—some of the quieter, magical things that presented themselves along with what was planned:

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Monday, July 28, 2014

It takes a while to learn this,

but there are many ways to give a gift. And so few gifts, it turns out, require what you think they require.

Sometimes—like on a Monday evening following a late-night homecoming from a good but tiring vacation—a gift looks like this, all fresh and sending its aroma everywhere:

and a bowl full of this kind of sweetness:

and celebrating pizza-movie night four days early
while clothes tumble clean in the basement.

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Maybe you are a dreamer, but you get tired sometimes. You fight discouragement. And you dream, yes, and you Do, as well, but your hands feel so busy weaving together dream and reality…

And when they come to you, saying, We want to plant a garden! We want to grow vegetables! you remember when you had this dream of working the ground and pulling nourishment from the earth, plucking goodness from green stems. (They were going to help, but they did not. You were the Little Red Hen, out there alone planting, pulling weeds, and in the end watching your work, your beautiful plants, disappear bit by bit, eaten by deer and rabbits. You enjoyed your bounty alone, not that you didn’t try to share: 7 cherry tomatoes, 3 lemon cucumbers, 2 pumpkins. In the end you decided you had more important dreams to attend to.)

So they come to you with this dream and you remind them of yours and how it turned out. You give them your blessing but tell them they’re on their own for this one. You will focus on other dreams.

And they plant their garden, and not the way you would have done it.

And it grows.

Somehow this crazy, barely-planned, not-how-you-would-do-it garden does beautiful wild things, despite the rabbits. The plants bring forth jewels, and regularly you are called outside to admire their progress. Sometimes you go and check all on your own. You start to dream of all the things you can make with what they’ve grown, of all the goodness you can sit and eat together.

One day they bring in the largest zucchini you have ever seen and ask you to make zucchini bread. You would love to. You might even throw in chocolate chips.

They wait almost patiently when the bread is in the oven, even though it is late for breakfast. The kitchen on this cool summer day grows full and heavy with the scent of it, and you pull out heavy hot loaves, nutty brown flecked with green. It is good. You eat slowly.

It turns out you do not have to do all the dreaming.

Even so there is weaving to do, and now your hands feel rested.

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Monday, July 14, 2014


We followed up our girls’ week at the Chicago Suzuki Institute with a week in Minneapolis—all five of us—while Oldest attended Voice Camp at MacPhail Center for Music. Minneapolis, it is safe to say, remains the city closest to my heart: there are lakes with accompanying parkways and paths that will always be mine; parks, a library, a creek, and food that feel like home; family and friends I miss all but a few days out of each year.

All those things were wonderful and welcoming for this trip, plus Oldest got to sing his heart out. We returned home exhausted but full.

Two extra things I particularly loved about this visit: Little Free Libraries popping up everywhere, and the yarn bombs we discovered while walking, running, driving. Both spoke of community, and beauty, and chance encounters/connection. I want to scatter both all over my adopted city.


Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Outdoor Stage, Alone

Cottonwood seeds floating, sun shining. Water rushing in the background.

What do you do with this wide-open space? The twirls feel stiff at first, but they loosen quickly. The stage is all yours, and it does not take long to open your arms to it; it does not take long for the songs to break free from your throat. Anything can happenwhatever you wish. 

Enjoy the sun warming your shoulders, blessing these minutes, these twirls, these songs.

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Monday, July 7, 2014


Some stars disappear when you look at them straight on. Pale glints in your peripheral vision when you look up, they slide into blackness when you turn your eyes toward them. The issue is in our eyes: the cones concentrated in the central part of the cornea—the part we use when we look at something head-on—do not pick up the dim light that the rods around the edges of the cornea do. Regardless of the constancy of what we're looking at, we are stuck with what our eyes can see: stars-like-phantoms. They must be approached sideways, and gently.

It’s not just stars, though.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about for months—the sideways-ness of things.

It is ever-present in teaching, especially so for me this past year, working with a small group of children every day. Threaded all through the process of learning violin are other things: how we treat one another, how we handle problems, how we respond to frustration. How we show love and respect and kindness. How we create and respond to beauty. How we learn to discipline our fingers, our ears, our mouths, our minds. How we simply learn one another and build relationships—complicated, real, and gritty.

This is why I find it hard to write about teaching. It is personal, ongoing, complex. It is also universal. The fact that I can focus on one thing—learning to play violin—is very helpful, because I can rule out Everything Else. Except I draw on Everything Else to do it—faith, psychology, physics, storytelling, eating Dorito’s—everything. And then of course it turns out that learning violin touches everything else. Try to nail the whole thing down, narrow it, look at it too directly, and you start to lose sight of certain things. Sometimes you have no choice but to approach sideways, gently.

It’s fair, I think, to start wondering which is the true artthe direct work or the sideways, the music or the people working on the music? It’s both things at once of course, but it’s worth considering what you might see when you shift your focus, and what is most important to you to see in the end. 

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What I'm Doing This Week

I’m not sure why I thought I’d get a lot of writing in this week. I am at the Chicago Suzuki Institute with my daughters, filling up on music and technique and new friends and Everything Violin. And—most importantly—reminding myself why we’re doing this in the first place (We are doing this in order to grow, in order to become better human beings. Music, you see, is the medium as much as it is the final product, the art, itself. And our lives—they are the true art.)

Those are noble words. The actual work they describe is awkward and messy and really stinking hard, but it is interspersed with these wonderful moments. Kind of like practicing violin, itself, which when done right is not at all romantic, but instead involves things like practicing the same two notes over and over until they can be played well, and then over and over many times more, until they will never sound ugly again. You don’t necessarily want to be in the room for this process, but the results are worth it. 

There has been music-making this week, and understanding, and beauty. 

We are enjoying ourselves and also bordering on wiped-out. In my characteristic, extremely relationship-oriented/extremely introverted way, I half want to absorb more/connect more/converse more, half want to hide somewhere with a book. One daughter, apparently, talks in her sleep. (“Mom,” a voice just informed me out of the dark of our dorm room, “there are two butterflies in here.”) And to be honest, our moments of beauty and understanding are balanced with healthy doses of snippiness.

Overall though, I feel like we have been able to relax more this year. I prepared myself ahead of time for the comparison game—not that I’m not tempted to play (I am) but I am also (mostly) able to see it for what it is. I resolved early on that frog catching/rescuing (they are tiny and everywhere, crossing the sidewalks like ants,) as well as extra desserts, would be part of our daily schedule along with practicing and brushing teeth. And—luxury of luxuries—I brought an air mattress with me this year. Sleeping on the floor won’t hurt. This is all very good.

This feeling that there’s so much here, that I can’t possibly process it all, that I also don’t want to stop trying to process it all—that must be a good sign. This too, I think, is why we are here.

More about our Suzuki institute and workshop experiences here.

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Today's Unexpected

Yesterday the girls discovered—who knows where—water balloons. Clearly begging to be filled with air. Youngest was frustrated with tying knots in the slippery things, and rather furious with me for being so accomplished at it. I told her it just took a lot of practice. Today—glossy pastel balloons all over the place, and I didn’t tie a single one. She’s left a trail all over the house.

If only all the trails we left behind us were this good.

When I straighten up the living room for teaching this afternoon I will leave this one in its place:

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email