Gift from My Sister

Buck and I watched another segment of Ken Burn's instantly iconic film, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, and talked into the night about a cross-country road trip to Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Glacier and The Tetons that we have been teasing each other with for ages. We talked about the lure of rigging up the old van and driving all the way.

Finally, Buck  yawned and stood. "Well, that's it for me. I'm going to bed," he said. "How about you?"

I looked over at the piano. "I'll be along in a few minutes."

Buck knows me so well. "You play as long as you want. I haven't heard enough of The Beast lately. Come on, Maggie."

I sat in the semi-dark room, with only the piano light providing illumination. This kind of late-night playing is very intimate. It's not high octane performance. It's not practice. It's meditational plunking. It's quiet, keenly felt joy. I thank my sister, Flo, for transmitting her love of music to me when she was a teenager and I was a child. It was the gift of a lifetime.

"Love is still the only dream I know."

from Seasons of the Heart, by the late John Denver

Stella’s Patellas

Susan Adcock , (Pitcherlady), is a gifted professional photojournalist and blog buddy based in Nashville, Tennessee. A while back she adopted a puppy and named her Stella. The puppy grew  – and grew. Now Stella has her own blog.   She is a bilingual, carnival-born Mexican-American Pit Bull, and she needs a little help. 

Listen to Nellie McKay sing The Dog Song, and then click on over here to read about Stella's temporary problem. Help out if you can. Susan doesn't know Maggie and I are posting this, so don't tell her.


What’s The Trick?

Playing Mozart has a way of straightening you right out. The clarity of his sonatas is bracing. No covering up mistakes by overuse of a foot pedal. He is what he is. And your playing is what it is.

Yesterday was one of those foggy, sultry days that is the hallmark of panhandle Florida winters. The pattern goes like this, usually in a seven to ten day cycle: warm and wet, then windy, then bright and cold to hover around freezing, then warming into the seventies, sultry, foggy, rain, then windy, bright and cold again. Never put away the shorts and tank tops, but keep long pants and a jacket handy, too.

I played Mozart yesterday from the late afternoon gloom until it gathered into full darkness. The big old sexy beast of a piano treated me like a spurned lover, formal and distant at first. "You don't love me anymore," it seemed to say. "You've found other toys to play with."

But it couldn't resist my earnest heavy breathing, and soon became supple under the ministrations of my wandering dilletante fingers. With Amadeus as our spirit guide, we went in search of truth.

A dark cloud of self-doubt had been hovering in that space between my eyebrows for a day or two, rumbling and threatening to storm. The cloud was like a chorus in an ancient play: "You're too old to start writing seriously; you don't have any formal study in creative writing; who are you kidding?"  You probably have a voice like that too. The cloud of self-doubt tailors its negative, nagging harangue for each individual.

Mozart reminded me of the years I spent learning how to play, the hours of doing it badly, of learning all that boring technique, so that I might sit now at the keyboard at any hour of the day or night and make difficult passages look easy.

I laughed out loud remembering the former wife of a late friend of ours. She was a young woman hungry for objects to fill up the road and block passage between her poor childhood in the hills of Appalachia and her current, hard-won life of comfort if not ease. She pestered her elderly husband for a grand piano. He finally caved, and bought her one, along with a set of lessons.

She went to a few lessons. Plunk. Plunk. Plunk.

Our telephone rang one day. It was her. "Learning to play the piano is taking too long. I want to play like you. What's the trick?"

"What?" I wasn't sure I had heard her right.

"Come on, what's the trick?" she said it again.

I realized she was quite serious, and so, after a moment, I said, "Well, I guess the trick is to start when you're about nine years old, take lessons for at least ten years, practice five hours a day for years on end, and then keep up with it as an adult. That's the really tricky part."

"Oh," she said. "You're not going to tell me."

Soon thereafter, she persuaded her husband to pay for surgery on the new piano, gelding a noble instrument to play compact discs of Reader's Digest-style condensed versions of music — "light classics," "pop classics," and even "light" versions of rock and roll, for God's sake.

And so, today, I'm back to writing before dawn, studying words, structure and formats during the day, and reading the Paris Review interviews into the night. We have to meet our urge for creativity wherever we are on the path, to find joy in the work of it, the sheer workmanlike mechanical action of words on paper and the metallurgical transformation that some bright morning might astonish even our indwelling critic.


 Suzanne holds the mirror, while a volume of her author's work holds the pages. Let's play.


Louisiana And The Requiem

It is 10:30 on a soft April evening in panhandle Florida.

Buck and I mailed our tax return and check today. I bitch and moan about it, but the truth is, I am so grateful for the blessings of this life and the briar patch into which I undeservingly fell, that I smile all the while I am filling out the certified return receipt requested form at the post office.

After a sunset swim, we debriefed over cocktail hour, talking about Buck's newest book concept and our trip to Biloxi next week. Neither of us are into gambling, but we decided to stray off the reservation for a couple of nights to the Beau Rivage casino/hotel complex on Mississippi's Gulf coast. I've reserved an oceanfront room with a king-sized bed. Who knows? I might even succumb to the never before experienced putative pleasures of a dead sea salts facial or a hot stone massage. Don't get your hopes up. Even if I did, my protestant genes would insist that I keep it a secret!

Supper was a silky bean soup, accompanied by a dense pone of stoneground corn. God, it was good.

So good, that when Buck drifted toward the bedroom to read, I detoured off toward the piano. A friend will be singing the Brahms Requiem this November with the local choral society. I want to learn it, and so began this evening with a piano score and voice in English for soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

Tonight was Lesson I, straight up classical beauty, poco andante, e con espressione.

Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall have comfort.

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.

Who goeth forth and weepeth, and beareth precious seed, shall doubtless return with rejoicing, and bring his sheaves with him.

Thinking of the Gulf coast, hurricanes past, present and future, I put down Brahms, and picked up Randy Newman.

Lesson I, part (b), Louisiana, 1927, all bluesey and filled with a charasmatic tent revival feeling, especially in the bass note octaves ad libbing all over the place:

What has happened down here is the wind have changed

Clouds roll in from the north and it start to rain

Rained real hard and it rained for a real long time;

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.

River rose all day, the river rose all night.

Some people got lost in the flood,

some people got away all right.

River has busted through clear down to Plaquemine,

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.



They're tryin' to wash us away,

they're tryin' to wash us away.



They're tryin' to wash us away,

they're tryin' to wash us away.

President Coolidge come down in a railraod train

with a little fat man with a note pad in his hand.

President Coolide say "Little fat man, isn't it a shame

what the river has done to this poor cracker's land?"



They're tryin' to wash us away,

they're tryin' to wash us away.



They're tryin' to wash us away,

they're tryin' to wash us away.

I don't know what it is about pounding on that great black beast of a piano, only that it stretches me out, helps me to cry, helps me to laugh, helps me to lay the demons down and sleep.






Down The Rabbit Hole

Metatarsalgia is a technical-sounding word for "sore foot."  I have been foot sore and unable to play the piano for more than a month. Ha! That sounds pretty funny; creates an image of me playing the piano with my feet. Didn't know I could do that, did you?  But actually, the right-foot operated sostenuto and sustain pedals have a role in many pieces and even sitting on the bench with a throbbing foot has been uncomfortable.

Until last night.

An early evening rain storm, its glassy sheets of water surrounding the house, created a cocoon of comfort for us, the sound a blessing of white noise. Even the satellite television system was out, reminding us of the joys of human conversation over dinner with no attendant original-thought-killing soundtrack.

When Buck and Maggie drifted to the bedroom, he with a book and she to snore on her bedside mat, I noticed the piano light was on, sat down and began to play. IMG_0478

I started with a piece already on the stand. It was Brahms, Der Gang zum Liebchen (The Watchful Lover), surely one of the most lovely, haunting melodies ever written. From there, I picked up what was closest: Jacques Brel's "If You Go Away," and Randy Newman's bluesy "Louisiana."

Darkness was complete in the room, except for the circle of light within which I sat. An old John Denver songbook peeked out from the pile. I pulled it out and started with the first one, then just kept on going. When I got to the softly rolling "Back Home Again," an unexpected surge of memories swamped my small tidal pool of song, and suddenly I was back in Scotland, our first trip to the Isle of Arran. The year was 1998.

IMG_0491 Buck spent the week stalking red stags on Goatfell Mountain and its environs, while I explored the island on foot and by bus once I learned the schedules and became halfway confident in which coin was a ten pence, twenty pence or pound.

I remember waiting for a bus one rainy day in a high wind, swaddled in my green rain suit, hanging on to a light post for fear of blowing down the narrow road like some out of place tumbleweed.

At week's end, the guides, ghillies and other guests gathered for a party at Sannox House with many rounds of drinks, toasts and music. Some German fellows drank dark beer and shots of Jagermeister and later on scotch whiskey. One of the ghillies was a tall Englishman, Neil Fox, who told us he had once played guitar with Eric Clapton's band. Neil had brought along his karaoke machine and guitar. He knew most every song ever written by John Denver, plus all the words to every verse, and was thrilled to have two Americans in the house who were familiar with Denver. After a wee dram or two, we were induced to sing along. Before the night was out, we danced with abandon, oblivious to the two younger German guys snapping photos. IMG_0461

When Neil played "Back Home Again," Buck and his guide and good friend, Alan Ross, wrapped their arms about each other's shoulders and sang along, jocular at the beginning, but earnest and nearly sober at the end, singing Denver's timeless tale of love for home and family.

". . . and oh, the time that I can lay this tired old body down and feel your fingers feather soft upon me. . ."

On a later visit, a small group of us ended the evening standing in a small circle, glasses raised, as Alan's wife, Farquhar, sang The Flower of Scotland a capella in her clear, beautiful voice. It sounds ancient, with it's surprising atonal shifts, but was actually written in 1967 by Roy Williamson of the folk group, The Corries. My own nostalgia for that moment surprises me, and I suddenly long to be back on Arran.

Music opens the door to memory, puts me in direct and immediate connection with emotion, and down the rabbit hole I go!

IMG_0514                                    Holy Isle, seen from Lamlash, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Playing Chopin And Mozart Late At Night

Playing Chopin and Mozart late at night is more potent than two pots of espresso. It leaves me feeling Incredible Hulk-like, with hot hands and large veins running like tributaries down my arms and fingers, stopped suddenly by fingertip dams. Eyes bright, breathing fast, I kept Buck awake for another hour going on about Chopin and his penchant for double sharps, and configurations of notes that contort my hands beyond their ability to respond gracefully. Laughing out loud at Mozart's amazing variations on the melody I grew up knowing as "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" — I begin to consciously regulate my breathing and dial back the energy so I'll be able to sleep.

Hundred proof joy.

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Rediscovering Mendelssohn

My love affair with the piano has been, by turns, passionate, stormy, and for years at a stretch ruled by benign neglect.

My first piano was an ancient upright, which I played until the tops of the keys came off and my fingers stuck to the gluey surfaces of what remained. For the first time in memory, I wonder if we ever tried to glue the tops back on? Most likely we did. Once I had mastered Sweet Hour of Prayer and it looked like the lessons were going to “take” — my Daddy bought an Everett spinet. With my child’s limited vision at that time, it never occurred to me to consider or reflect upon what sacrifices might have been necessary to make the purchase possible.

And lessons weren’t cheap even then, yet for years my mother drove me to the half hour lesson at Mrs. Evelyn Clites’ home in Limona, near our home in Brandon, Florida. Mother sat out in the car while I went inside to soak up lessons from Mrs. Clites, not only piano and music theory, but poise, gentility, patience, joy, kindness, personal discipline and optimism. That remarkable teacher introduced me to Broadway in addition to Mendelssohn. She gave me biographies of composers to read, and I learned that few masterpieces are created from the backdrop of a sheltered, comfortable life. The classical music study revealed to me how beauty and passion can emerge only after focused practice to master the details of fingering, phrasing and expression. Only at that point, when you can forget about those details and put your own joyous suffering soul into the music, will its true transformative power be felt and heard and you will find yourself laughing and crying and feeling tinglingly alive.

The Broadway musicals sheet music that got tossed to me as reward stimulated my imagination for far away places, and stirred within me a lifelong love of lyrics. All composers, lyricists, poets, writers, sculptors, painters, and photographers are at the top of my heart’s evolutionary heap.

In those years of my mid to late teens, when the atmosphere in our home played out a mournful dirge in a chaotic and minor key, beautiful music was my solace, my bridge to the future. Playing the sheet music collection from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, I was enthralled. Exhilarated, I would sing “I Feel Pretty” in my high, quavery voice, while whirling around mother’s furniture with a dust cloth. Leaping and sliding while singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” from Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s My Fair Lady, my dance partner was a broom.

Once in high school, I accompanied a beautiful red haired girl in the Miss Tampa beauty contest on the piano while she sang “Tonight” from West Side Story. I can recall being on stage at a huge Steinway grand piano, the lights hot and bright, a sea of blurry faces somewhere out there. My soloist wore a luminous blue gown to accent her gorgeous coppery tresses and mitigate her thin, reedy voice. I was too shy then to mix and mingle, but rather slipped onstage, played and went home. No matter. I had a ball, and the experience was yet another shiny rock to added to my collection of ways to be in the world.

I left that Everett piano behind, along with almost every other personal possession, when I divorced my first husband. I gave the piano to my younger brother. He had never had an opportunity for lessons, but seemed to have a talent for improvisation and a desire to play. He kept it for awhile.

Living without a piano for several years seemed an appropriate penance to me for various failures and missteps in my life. This was a period of self-examination and change, an exfoliance of fake skins and false personas, a return to the tree-climbing girl of my youth. Through it, I found the love of my life, accepted responsibility for the first time and began to live my destiny.

It was during this time that I read Ira Progoff’s “At A Journal Workshop” on the recomendation of a psycholgogy professor friend. The cognitive journalling techniques were extremely helpful, especially the Twilight Imagery exercises, and the metaphor of “progressively entering the well of inward experience until we are able to reach the underground stream.” Here is an unedited entry from my first Period Image journal entry during that time of growth and change back in the early 1980s:

“Period Images — searching, a wandering pilgrim. I imagined myself climbing into the well of inward experience. The water was slightly warm and felt soothing. The water level lowered gradually, much like a slow elevator, until I found myself on the banks of an underground tream. I saw a young girl, about twelve years old, with long dark hair, dressed in a burgundy dress with a white lace pinafore, dressy white socks with round-toed black patent leather shoes. She is holding a baby doll of some sort, and is sitting on the bank of the stream. The stream itself is dark, cool and quiet. It is night, but there is a bright moon and there are many stars. The stream reflects the light back to the young girl.

The young girl is me. She is watching a slowly revolving carousel. Instead of horses on the carousel, there are cutouts of me in various adult personas. One with a ‘dress for success’ tailored suit and briefcase; one relaxed in jeans and old blue sweatshirt; one in cocktail dress and fur; one in negligee; one in flannel pajamas. This image fades, and I (as an adult) find myself walking alongside the stream. I pick up several stars lying along the bank and put them in my pocket. I have an image of speaking to large audiences. They applaud and reach out to me. I also see the young girl in a pinafore wanting to be a kind woman in an apron.

I sit beside the stream building a sand castle. I must be careful to let the stream continue its free flow. If I build the castle so large it blocks the stream, the moat of protection will become a stagnant pool.”

Buck and I married in 1984. He designed our first home, which we moved into in 1986. Soon after, a delivery truck arrived, carrying a stunning ebony Yahama professional studio piano, a love gift from the man who always encourages my dreams.

The Yamaha moved with us to North Carolina, where it was ensconced in the glassed-in room we called the Snow Porch — so named because it was the best place around for watching as a winter snowfall turned the mountains white. The Black Moriah, our fond nickname for the Yamaha piano, is in storage now along with the rest of our North Carolina furniture, awaiting the call to join us here when the Longleaf expansion is complete.

Meanwhile, I am not without a piano to play. Buck’s father, Earl, bought a Baldwin Acrosonic spinet for Buck’s mother, Lois, back in the early 1940’s. It has suffered a bit from a sojourn in the home of some of Lois’ great-grandchildren, especially when one youngster carved her name into it with a pocket knife. It has come back to us now for safe keeping.

We moved it to a place along the living room wall in the lodge yesterday where the light is good and there is sufficient space around it to invite others to sing or play along with guitar or flute. This space has perfect chemistry, and the old Baldwin sounds better than I have ever heard it.

Into the night, I played Clementi Sonatinas, Rachmaninoff Ballades, and Mendelssohn’s heartrendingly lovely Songs Without Words.

An old piece of sheet music in the piano bench caught my eye and I played it — the last song before bedtime. It is called “My God and I” and the text and music were written by I. B. Sergei, copyright 1935. A notice on the back says, “Music Directors. . . . performing this number are invited to visit the composer at his home. For appointment write to the publisher. The KAMA CO, P.O. Box 1929, Chicago, Ill.” The music was described as “from the repertoire of the LATVIAN SINGERS.” Its words, rather wonderful, are to be sung “in a very slow and dreamy manner.”

“My God and I, go in the field together, we walk and talk as good friends should and do, we clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter, my God and I, walk through the meadow’s hue.

He tells me of the years that went before me, when heav’nly plans were made for me to be, when all was but a dream of dim conception, to come to life, earth’s verdant glory see.

My God and I, will go for aye together, we’ll walk and talk and jest as good friends do. This earth will pass and with it common trifles, but God and I will go unendingly.”

Turning out the light, well satisfied, I went into our bedroom where Maggie was snoring and Buck was holding a book, but not reading, his eye fixed on a distant point of memory. I told him about the lyrics. He smiled, nostalgia evident in his expression. “I know it well. Mother would play it by the hour.”

I slipped into bed, wedging myself between Buck and Maggie.

“Will the circle be unbroken,
By and by, Lord, by and by?”