Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Backstageby Robert Maiorano and Rachel Isadora, illustrations by Rachel Isadora, Greenwillow Books, 1978

One of the things I love about playing operas and ballets is the atmosphere backstage. There’s so much magic—not just in the performance itself but in all the inner workings, in everything that goes into a performance. My parents often brought my sister and I along with them to performances when we were kids. We went through the stage door with them, followed them as they unpacked their cases, and accompanied them into the orchestra pit. From there somebody would push a chair up to the edge of the pit and help us climb up and out to find our seats. I loved it. The whole backstage experience was as much a part of the show for me as the performance itself.

This little gem of a book is out of print, but it captures so much I just had to share. The writing is spare; the illustrations do most of the telling as a little girl named Olivia goes to pick up her mother at a rehearsal of the “The Nutcracker.” She goes all over the theater, providing readers with detailed glimpses of what things look like behind the scenes (much more than I saw as a child, in fact.) The black-and-white illustrations are bursting with detail that I’m guessing most ballet-goers never get to see. If you can get hold of this book, it is a real treat.

For more Nutcracker goodness from last year, check here and here.

Friday, November 26, 2010


“Thanksgiving goes probably far deeper than you folks suppose. I am not sure but it is the source of the highest poetry.”
Walt Whitman

I woke up yesterday morning at five a.m. to a precious sound—my husband coming in the front door after a thirteen hour-drive. I spent the day at home with my family and enjoyed dinner with my husband, children, parents, and in-laws. We shed tears over the people we love who are no longer with us. Our four year-old learned that Thanksgiving is not exactly about getting presents but she had a great day anyway. Our eight year-old bloomed with generous acts. Our ten year-old looked at me with glowing eyes and told me he’d never been to a real feast before. I am thankful and want to hold on to that state of mind. I want to walk around in a cloud of gratitude.

To my mind, there is something jarring about going from a day devoted to giving thanks to a day devoted to getting more. It’s too easy for me to forget that one of the synonyms for “thankful” is “content.” Then there’s “beholden,” another synonym, and one which I don’t think I’ve ever used in a sentence before today. But why should “bound in gratitude” be an old-fashioned idea? I am blessed beyond belief. This is a truth I want to carry with me at all times. Maybe even be bound to it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Take That, Mr. Shaw

Funny thing, about life. The class/workshop I attended in Minneapolis was fantastic and inspiring. I think I will be processing it for a long time—a good thing, but also something that tends to exaggerate my introverted nature. My head is full of thoughts, but I have trouble knowing what to say. Add to that the fact that the morning after I got home, my husband left to attend the funeral of an important person in his life, and the fact that—wait, is Thanksgiving tomorrow? At my house? I’m not panicking. Really, I’m not. It’s just that I feel like I have both everything and nothing to say right now, and not much time to say it in. Then again, if I had more “time,” I’d probably have a lot less to say.

Back to the class. The teacher was Alison McGhee, lovely person and lovely writer for both children and adults, who just happens to have been my Chinese teacher for two years in high school. I knew the class would be good, and it was. Two things stood out, especially:

1) Nobody told me I was in over my head and should just go home (a silly thing to worry about, I suppose, but—hooray—nobody said it!)

2) There’s a lot that goes into being a good teacher, and this is what I really want to get at today. I learned a ton about writing picture books, but I also got some great insights into teaching. Alison’s generosity with the class really stood out. Whenever somebody shared an idea, she could see the magic in it. She didn’t just understand and nod and say “good job,” she could see the potential within and help everybody else see it.

Do you know that old saying, “Those who can’t, teach”? From what I can tell, it comes from George Bernard Shaw (“Man and Superman”: Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion), although the exact quote is, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” Way too cynical for my taste. Of course there are bad teachers out there. Anything good you can think of, there are examples of it being twisted into something so bad it shakes your faith in the thing itself. But I’ve seen good teachers in action, and been blessed to learn from a number of them, and I truly feel sorry for people who believe as Shaw does. There are teachers out there who can, and do—who know their craft inside and out, and on top of that have the ability to translate what they know into something they can share. Not only that, but they have the ability to see where to work and guide; they know how to judge what is most useful to do and when it is most useful to do it. Beyond that, they work with a generosity and humility that is guided by a deep love and respect for the student. They prove that teaching is an art, in and of itself. Believe me, those people exist. Seek them out.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Weekend Ahead

I’ve been sitting here at the computer for a while, now, trying to figure out how to sum up what I want to say about the weekend ahead of me. The sunrise is in full bloom, and soon I will need to shower and finish packing, and take care of all the loose ends I wanted to take care of that I always think will take no time at all but in reality end up absorbing at least an hour or two.

I’m going off for a weekend to take a writing class. There—I said it. I have no idea what to expect, and the thought of doing it is slightly terrifying, but I can’t wait. I know by now that stepping out into something new is almost always harder and more complex than I had imagined, but often it is more beautiful in the long run, too. I can’t tell you how impatient I feel to learn more, but along with that I feel tired and slightly distracted and rather unfit to take even a four-hour class. So we’ll see how it goes. I’ve got a fantastic husband who is willing to send me off for a few days, and children who think that the idea of Mommy taking a class is pretty cool. I have a full day of driving ahead of me, and lots of coffee to drink, and lots of time to think uninterrupted. I can feel my energy level rising already.

Monday, November 15, 2010


The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (Pooh Original Edition)

       Christopher Robin nodded.
       “Then there’s only one thing to be done,” he said. “We shall have to wait for you to get thin again.”
       “How long does getting thin take?” asked Pooh anxiously.
       “About a week, I should think.”
       “But I can’t stay here for a week!”
       “You can stay here all right, silly old Bear. It’s getting you out which is so difficult.”
       “We’ll read to you,” said Rabbit cheerfully. “And I hope it won’t snow,” he added. “And I say, old fellow, you’re taking up a good deal of room in my house—do you mind if I use your back legs as a towel-horse? Because, I mean, there they are—doing nothing—and it would be very convenient just to hang the towels on them.”
       “A week!” said Pooh gloomily. “What about meals?”
       “I’m afraid no meals,” said Christopher Robin, “because of getting thin quicker. But we will read to you.”
       Bear began to sigh, and then found he couldn’t because he was so tightly stuck; and a tear rolled down his eye, as he said;
       “Then would you read a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?”
From Winnie-the-Pooh, by A. A. Milne

On Friday night I had the opportunity to sit down over tea and sandwiches with a small group of women for the express purpose of sharing our life stories with one another. I came away feeling incredibly blessed. I love hearing people’s stories, both because it helps me understand them better and because it helps me understand life better. I have many times felt like a Wedged Woman in Great Tightness. It is hard to understand your own story, sometimes, when you are right in the middle of it. But following the arc of someone else’s story—that offers insight from a more comfortable perspective, and sometimes insight into one thing leads to insight into another. Sort of like when you’re working on a puzzle and getting one piece into the right place makes your whole perspective shift. Suddenly you know where a whole handful of pieces fit.

If you love me, tell me a story.

Friday, November 12, 2010

In Which I Share an Article for Completely Self-Serving Reasons

I admit it. I googled “clutter and creativity” and bypassed all the (many) search results that talk about how clutter inhibits creativity, picking instead this New York Times article that claims clutter might be good. I had heard rumors to this effect, and actively sought out support for them. If you are a neat, organized person, God bless you and please do not be offended. I admire you greatly, and this article probably has nothing to offer you. If, like me, your lack of organization is just one more source of guilt, shame, and frustration, maybe there’s some wisdom (and moral support) to be found here. At the very least, it makes me think I need to tweak my response to my children’s mess (yes, they need to learn how to clean up, but are the ransacked school room and bedrooms a travesty, or a sign of wonderful things going on?)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The "Third" Piece of the Triangle

The Suzuki Triangle consists of three important parts: the student, the parent, and the teacher. All three have distinct roles to play, and are integral to a child learning to play.

I grew up as a Suzuki student. My parents, both professional musicians and teachers—violin and bass—started me on violin when I was 2 ½. The story is that they pretty much had to give me my own violin so I would leave their instruments alone. I started teaching in 1996, and a year and a half ago I started my older daughter, beginning my tenure as a Suzuki parent. Now my younger daughter is also learning to play, because the only way I could work uninterrupted with her sister was to give her a lesson first. And the cycle continues…

Our triangle looks a little funny, since I am both teacher and parent. But seeing things from this side has been amazing. I get a whole new perspective as the person responsible for daily listening, practice, and overall development. The parent’s role is huge. This is the person who does the work on the ground, finding a way to make violin a part of daily life, fulfilling the role of teacher at home. This is not a drop-your-kid-off-and-have some-free-time-after-school activity by any stretch of the imagination. I knew it would be a challenge. I knew it would be a commitment. I also knew I would get a lot of insight into the whole process of learning violin. But at the same time, I had no idea. I am learning so much.

You know what, though? It is such a beautiful thing to be part of.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My Nightstand

If you’re ever over at our house, you may notice that we keep our bedroom door shut. I love the room and the things in it, but it also tends to be Laundry Central, and that’s sort of embarrassing. A book I read during my first year of marriage said our bedroom should be the most beautiful place in our home—a sanctuary and symbol of our marriage and thus the place that gets the most loving care. Well, I’ve failed at that. It’s a great idea, but—well, this post isn’t about housekeeping.

If the door is ever open, it’s possible I’ve managed to tame the mess on my dresser and deal with the laundry (or hide it in the closet.) But I probably haven’t even noticed my nightstand. It rarely crosses my mind that it should look any different than it does. Come to think of it, that may explain why the area around each child’s bed looks the way it does. Because my nightstand holds most of the books I am currently reading, as well as a hefty line-up of the things I want to read. It contains many of my hopes and dreams as a reader and as a person, it reveals some of what I love, what I want to learn, what I want to emulate, what I want to absorb.

So here’s what is in that pile:

Four issues of Poets & Writers
A Bible
Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach
A Fine White Dust, Cynthia Rylant
Rules for the Dance, Mary Oliver
Teacher Man, Frank McCourt (actually finished this, but never re-shelved it)
Three issues of Books & Culture
Summer issue of The Classical Teacher, Memoria Press
A stack of letters and copies of my grandma’s sketches that I brought home from Lincoln last spring and don’t want to lose
The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck
Shadow Baby, Alison McGhee
Into Thin Air, John Krakauer
Nathan Coulter, Wendell Berry
The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor
Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography, ed. William Zinsser

Then there’s what used to be on the floor under the nightstand, but has been moved by my ever-patient husband to the top of a CD tower in the hallway:

The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Paul Elie
Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
The Mabinogion, trans. Charlotte Guest

Finally, we mustn’t forget the headboard (it’s flat and makes a lovely shelf):

Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton
Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America, ed. Jane Kurtz
The Burning of Los Angeles: Poems, Samuel Maio

Remember, this post is not about housekeeping!

Thursday, November 4, 2010


It’s turning out to be one of those weeks. One of those “Would-you-please-let-me-off-the-rollercoaster-and-let-me-walk-for-a-while” weeks. We started the week with illness—both my husband and I were barely functional. And when I get sick I tend to also get discouraged. Little things, like when your eight year-old gets excited about seeing a picture of Bach on the wall in a movie (“You know, the guy on the one dollar bill!”) are devastating, because you don’t know if you should be excited that she esteems Bach so highly or concerned about the holes in her knowledge of American history. Or both. (Now that I’m feeling better I’ve decided to be glad of the connections she made—she recognized the picture on the wall as the same picture on a $1 bill and figured it was the man in a white wig with whom she is most familiar. Not bad for barely eight years old. She has plenty of time left in her education to iron these things out.)

There have been glimpses of grace along the way this week, too, like the snowflake mobile the kids made out of the ceiling fan, and hugs from my ten year-old son, and the offers from all three children to take over meal preparations. There have been articles like author Alison McGhee’s on why she writes for children and Jessica Griffith’s on parenting, being different, and artistic vision.

I remember what a revelation it was when teachers pointed out to me that the music of Bach and Mozart was full of dissonances. For a long time, I had thought of Mozart, especially, as a composer who wrote perfectly logical music—what came next always made sense to me. In fact, though, part of his brilliance was how he played with his listeners’ expectations, how his music was peppered with sharps and flats that weren’t part of the key he was writing in, how melody and form took unexpected turns in his compositions. Bach, too, held notes together that clashed, moving through dissonances I never thought I expected in his music, but that in reality make his music fresh and rich and relevant.

It turns out that much of what I respond to in art has to do with tension and release, light and dark, devastation and redemption. And yet I keep thinking that I don’t want those things in my life. That I want some sort of easy straight line to live. And yet the light that you get when you are in the dark is so very lovely.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Philosopher and the Poet

I remember a heated discussion with a couple of friends in college who became convinced that philosophy was the highest, purest form of art there could be. I think their argument was that it dealt with the highest things, unencumbered by anything like a storyline, or a canvas, or a musical score. (It’s been quite a while--I could be completely wrong, but that’s how I remember it.) I had just finished a semester in a philosophy class, and I was a music student, besides, so there was no way I could agree. My argument was that a poet (or artist, or composer, for that matter) could take that pure philosophy and capture its essence in just a few lines, delivering the same message in a beautiful form that could be understood almost instinctually. I still stand by that thought: poet/artist/musician as messenger, translator, light-shedder.

But here is a slightly different take on poetry and reason, from the chapter titled “The Maniac,” in G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
Does that make anybody else want to shout, “Yes, yes, yes!” and plaster that on their forehead?