The piano recital…

Growing up, I played violin and piano from age four through high school, not always simultaneously; piano lessons were shelved in high school, which is funny because now I’m a piano teacher, and I didn’t start at four with piano, just violin. That’s a long time to play any instrument, let alone two, and adds up to a lot of recitals.

Studying violin in the Suzuki method, I liked group recitals. We would play through a selection of songs starting with the most advanced students at the school, and down through the Twinkles. Standing with anywhere from ten to two dozen or more other violinists, there was no sense of stage fright, and no worry about forgetting the notes. Solo recitals were another thing entirely.

I have never played a piece and not made a mistake in a recital. I don’t know if that is true for professionals, or if the mistakes they make are hardly noticeable to the average audience member, but it was nerve wracking to know I would play and I would make a mistake. I thought the goal was perfection. There was no joy in sharing my music with others; it was an effort to remember the piece and do everything my teacher had taught me. And for violin, all the music had to be memorized.

Piano recitals, I have few memories of. I remember my last recital, in high school, and I remember a couple from elementary age years, but nothing else. I didn’t have to memorize my pieces for those recitals, as far as I can remember. If I have music in front of me, it’s easier, but I still don’t have good feelings when I hear the word “piano recital” or “violin recital.” So it was an effort for me to put together a recital for my piano students this spring.

I have students who started lessons a couple years ago, with a different teacher, and I have students who started this past winter. I have students who started in September and have nearly finished the first Suzuki method book, and I have students who started in September and are just finishing up the Twinkles. All of them have worked hard, and made progress over the year, and I enjoy being their teacher. I wasn’t certain I wanted to put them through a recital. But I did, and I have come to the conclusion that recitals are for teachers, not for students.

I think my students enjoyed the applause, and the treats afterwards. The first recital is always the hardest; it’s a new experience. I know the anxiety and struggle because I have been a student performing at recitals. I was unprepared to be the teacher, and listen to my students, and be thrilled with their accomplishments. I could stand and listen, and remember their first lessons, and see how far they had come. I could enjoy their beautiful music, and be proud of them. I could also feel confident in my abilities as a teacher. This was my first year of teaching piano, and a first recital for me, as well. There were so many unknowns, of what each student would do, and if they would remember their pieces, all the little things. I didn’t have them perform to validate me, but for them to play as beautifully as they did makes me realize I must be doing something right.

So recitals are for teachers, at least until the students are playing as artists. Recitals are for family and friends to appreciate the hard work of the students, and for teachers to appreciate the hard work they themselves have done. Hopefully, the students enjoy more than the cookies and applause.

Having crossed the hurdle of the first recital, I think I’m better prepared for the next one. I did play a piece at the recital, farther along in the student repertoire. I made a mistake. And that’s alright.

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Of cabbages and kings…

Yesterday in Sunday school we began to trek through the kings of the Old Testament. As the last spark of interest in class came from Solomon’s thousand wives, and wondering (at an age appropriate level) what a concubine was, I didn’t have extremely high hopes for discussion going forward. Our curriculum is heavy on male protagonists, and while that never bothered me as a kid, my class of girls is having a hard time connecting with them. Solomon’s wives, and the queen of Sheba, they found exciting.

To try and spark some discussion, I decided to ask what kings they knew of, from books, movies, history, and then my plan was to have them discuss what makes a good king. The only king they came up with was King Arthur. Never mind that we’ve been talking about Solomon and David for the past two months. King Arthur was the only one to make the list without prompting.

When I was their age, I probably would have said King Arthur. I would have more likely said King Richard the Lionheart. After that, High King Peter, King Edward, all the other kings of Narnia, Henry the VIII, Xerxes, and the King of Siam(from The King and I). If my teacher had allowed other rulers, I could have added Genghis Khan, Augustus Caesar, Aslan, whichever Louis was king in The Three Musketeers, and maybe Oberon, if I thought really hard, and was encouraged to keep thinking. For that matter, I could have added the king from Disney’s Cinderella, King Triton from The Little Mermaid, and the orangutan from The Jungle Book.

It’s hard to be suddenly asked a question, and have to sit and brainstorm. I might have been just as tongue tied, and unable to think, as my class was, at their age. It depends on so much more than the knowledge in your head, it’s the time of day, and what is really on your mind, and what you think the people around you think of you. But only King Arthur? Though I remember someone bringing up King Humperdinck a few weeks ago, so that’s promising.

Read it anyway…

When I was young, the world I really wanted to live in was that of Pauline, Petrova, and Posy Fossil. I read as many of the other Shoes books I could get my hands on, and my desire to be famous for something (dancing, acting, singing, it didn’t matter which) made me want to be one of those girls. As I got older, I started reading Tamora Pierce and I wanted to be a brave heroine who got to use a sword and fight with magic powers. I read plenty of other books, but those were the heroines I wanted to be. Those were the books that really shaped my life.

Then I discovered Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin Family Chronicles. I started with A Ring of Endless Light, finished it, and immediately read it again. Here was something different. Here was a family who valued hard work, who had normal relationships (they weren’t always nice to each other), and who sang and read books and talked about God. This was a world that valued learning, and valued good character and wisdom. There was so much hope in that book. There was also enough romance to keep my interest, but if I had to say why I read it again, it wasn’t because of the romance. It was because of faith.

I wish I had read the other Austin Family books when I was younger. I am glad I read Ballet Shoes, and learned what I could from it, besides enjoying the story. I learned a lot from reading Tamora Pierce.  But I wish I could have escaped into the Austin family’s world. I wish that world would have influenced what I wanted out of life, not the world of Posy Fossil or Alanna. Vicky Austin and I still have a lot in common, and while she has a lot of teenage angst, I think her perspective was more solid than mine ever was. I wish I could have had the example of really thinking things through, pondering over hard questions, seeing the magic in every day life, and even crying over the hard parts of life, from a young age, growing up from the first book to the last.

The world hasn’t changed much since Madeleine L’Engle wrote those books. There is still war, there is still drug abuse, there are still young people who are trying to see the good, and true, and beautiful in the world and praise God for it. There is still a time for reading good books, and listening to good music, and having conversations that might be hard but need to be had, and asking questions there aren’t any answers to. So often in modern books I see people give into the darkness; the Austin family acknowledges the darkness but chooses to sing the song, read the bedtime story, anyway. And that’s a world I want to be part of.

Listen, my children…

My mom’s method of family vacation was to see everything possible, whenever we visited a place. When we went to Boston one spring, it felt like we walked the entire city, and saw every last historical monument. We went to a beautiful church, and its reflection in the side of the glass office buildings beside it; we saw the ducks in the garden, we went to the library and we went to the ballet, and we went to the Old North Church and Copps Hill Cemetery. We went to Plymouth, and we also went up to Concord, and saw so many more things it all turns into sort of a blur and I feel inundated by monuments and memorials and great places in history. One place that stands out, though, is Paul Revere’s house.

I can’t really say anything about the outside of the house, all these years later. Or even too much about the inside of the house, except for the staircase. We were walking up the staircase, and it was very narrow. It curved up and around, and the ceiling seemed very low, and the wood seemed to be polished from the amount of traffic it had seen. And I remember thinking “Paul Revere walked up these steps.” For a moment, it was as if time itself changed, and there was very little that separated me from Paul Revere. He had walked up those steps, and other people had walked up those steps, and suddenly he was a real person to me. Not some person in history, but a real live person who walked up stairs, who really lived.

I love historical fiction, and I liked studying history in school so long as we actually learned about the story part of it, not just the names, dates, and locations. But those people never seemed real to me. Now, starting from that moment on Paul Revere’s staircase, I’ve been able to see the gap of time close, and realize I am standing not only in the present, but in the shadow of the past. Suddenly the people of the past are no longer names and dates, but real people with feelings who saw the same things I am now seeing, whether it’s Paul Revere’s staircase, the canons of the USS Constitution, or even the cabin where my mom spent her summers. These were complicated people, who had real feelings, not the pawns we make them out to be. Poetry helps the gap close, more than reams of dates. To stand at Paul Revere’s house, or the Old North Church, and hear Longfellow’s poem ring in my ears, that connects the story to the real people. To stand aboard the USS Constitution, and remember Holmes’ “Ay, tear her battered ensign down!” is to remember this is not just a story to be told, but a story that was experienced. I tell my story so others remember their stories, the stories of Paul Revere and everyone else who went up and down on his staircase.

Blood is thicker than water…

One of the things I like about Madeleine L’Engle’s books are the family relationships. They are not picture perfect families, but they are families I would like to know, or be a part of, because they are still families even when things are not perfect. Even when the odds seem to be against them, they still act like families. It’s so easy to quit when things get hard, and become individuals against the world.

I remember crying after dropping my sister off at college, and my mom crying, and the general consensus being, we should not be crying. She was going to a safe, good place, and that was good. So we both worked hard, and the next time we didn’t cry. Now I’m not sure to not cry was a good thing. We were mourning the separation of the family. Why shouldn’t we cry? Cry and know it’s alright, because even if we’re separated we’re still a family, and we know we’re still a family because we are crying. Because we are crying, we show we care.

Now my brother is the one who is off at college, and my sister lives several states away, and whenever they come to visit I feel like I should not take time to write, away by myself, and just immerse myself in togetherness. We’re a pretty boring bunch, so togetherness is mostly hanging out, messing around on instruments, talking, and maybe goofing off with some puppets. Pretty boring, but I miss that when we’re separate. So I’m feeling guilty that right now I’m sitting in my room typing this, and not being with my family. Because we are a family, and that’s why I feel guilty. Because I am guilty, and writing a blog post about this, I show I care.

I have realized that while you may never know what you have until it’s gone, you can also realize the same thing when what you thought you’d lost returns. I never appreciated the togetherness until we were separate. I never felt I should try to be with my family as much as possible, until we started going in different directions. Now it’s impossible, and that’s alright. We’re not a picture perfect family. No one is, even if they appear to be. It’s enough for me to realize, right now, that the reason I feel guilty and want to go back and fix things, is because we are family. In a day and age when connections between people can be so superficial, blood is still thicker than water.

Gladiators and fly fishing…

I like reading G.K. Chesterton. I like reading his mysteries and his romances, but I also like reading his theologies. About anyone who is not Chesterton, I might say, I also like reading his more serious books. Not so for Chesterton’s fiction and nonfiction. They are all serious, and they are all mysterious, and all romantic, and all comedic. There is the very right feeling, when I read him, that to write a romance so it rings true and brings a smile to your face is the same ideal for writing theology; it should also ring true and bring a smile to your face. Good theology should make you not only worship God, but forget yourself enough to laugh. The best romances I have ever read are the ones where I forget myself, the reader with certain desires that need to be met, and wholly rejoice in the adventure taking place on the page.

At my church we had a guest speaker whose primary desire, it seemed, was to make everyone be more serious. We were to shun the entertainment of the world, horrible temptations, and violence which makes Rome seem less and less barbaric. In his list of entertainments that drive us away from God was fly fishing. Now, I can’t really see too much of a correlation between fly fishing and the games at the Roman Coliseum. I suppose it depends on how you look at it. I suppose, if someone were to go out fly fishing with the intent of indulging murderous, lecherous thoughts, and deny the sanctity of human life, that could make it similar to the gladiatorial games. Or if you look at it from the point of view of the fly.

I’ve never been fly fishing, but I have been fishing. Not in a long time, but I remember it well. I remember sitting out in a little boat, silent, sitting there so long that time became nothing. I had no idea how long I had been there, and no idea how much longer I would be there, and it was good. There were clouds to watch, as they drifted across the sky, and there were ducks and turtles and fish in the water. Once, I saw a bald eagle fly over and land in a tree near the lake. I can remember the good, clean air, and the way the wind would pull at my hat, and the thrill when that tug came on the line. I can remember sitting out on that lake for hours, and watching the sky grow dark and the sun set behind the stately pines that hemmed in the lake. How is that like the Coliseum?

Chesterton says seriousness is closer to a heresy than a virtue. Seriousness makes us so concerned with ourselves and with our pride and our ability to do what is right, that we can’t laugh. We have a very wrong idea about God, and His mercy, if we can’t laugh. We need to laugh at ourselves, and we need to laugh in pure joy, as children do. Children can be happy and forgetful of themselves, when they are really enjoying a good thing. There is something right and good about being entertained, if that entertainment can lead us to forget ourselves and our selfish ambitions, and laugh and rejoice in the glory of God. I’m not saying all entertainment is equally helpful in leading us to worship God, but there’s no reason to lump fly fishing in with gladiatorial games.

The issue, I suppose, is our hearts. We would rather ban fly fishing and football and ballet, and try to sit at home and not be amused by the world, than sort through what is really good and brings glory to God, and what is really sin and makes us see other humans as objects and makes God cry. It’s easier to forbid everything than laugh and risk being wrong. But if we truly believed in a loving, merciful God, in a Christ who died to save us and will keep hold of us until our last day, it would be easier to laugh at ourselves. It would be easier to rejoice in the little, inane things that make us happy. There’s a huge difference between fly fishing and watching gladiators kill each other.

Tragedy and comedy…

When I was young, my dad introduced me and my siblings to the Herbie movies. Because we already named our vehicles and attributed feelings to many inanimate objects, it was fun to watch the little VW Beatle cruise around, win races, and have fun with his human friends and enemies. The movies were definitely silly, but they were fun. Yesterday I watched a remake with Lindsay Lohan, and it was predictably silly. There was something interesting about it, though.

I’m the sort of person who can’t always handle conflict, in person or on TV. I have to look away, get away, close my eyes and wait for it to be over. I don’t like slapstick humor, in general. Sometimes it just depends on the mood I’m in, but in general, I don’t like seeing people callously beat up on each other. It’s one thing if it’s a battle for good over evil, it’s entirely different to see someone hurt just for a joke.

Watching the Herbie movies, though, is different. Often, one of the participants in the slapstick hurtfulness is a car. A car who appears to have feelings, but a car all the same. It’s different to watch a car be beat up. I think this is why some kids go through a stage of not wanting to see real people on the TV; they want to distance themselves from the conflicts they see on screen. When the car is one of the parties in a fight, it takes some of the intensity out of the situation. It makes a difference if the scene is played for laughs or meant to be a tearjerker, of course, but it’s that distance that ultimately makes the movie enjoyable, a comedy and not a tragedy.

It’s a comedy when the car gets to beat up on someone, especially if he’s a bad guy. There’s nothing wrong in thinking it’s a tragedy when a person beats up on someone else, even if he’s a bad guy. Labeling people as bad guys and good guys also helps us cope with the conflict, with the violence, but it should make us pause whenever we see someone get beat up on screen. I’m thankful I can still see tragedy in people being cruel to each other, and yet I’m a little sorry I can’t see the humor in the TV scenes as others can. As a kid it made me feel weird to not like the kind of movies other people liked, and not to have seen the things others had. I wish I could tell my younger self that it is alright, and there’s no need to desensitize myself to tragedy. There is no reason on earth why I should be fine with people beating each other up on TV simply because it’s on TV.

Now, I like to watch The Waltons, and in different shows there are scenes that make me want to cringe inside, but it’s for the right reasons, because what is happening is a tragedy. The same goes for watching M*A*S*H*, which has a mixture of comedy and tragedy. These shows are about real people, and they do a good job of keeping the tragedy right in plain sight, as well as the comedy. I like watching the Herbie movies, because they are slapstick comedy without the tragedy of humans beating up on other humans, and because they remind me of good childhood memories. I watch a lot of things I would never have dreamed of sitting through as a kid, and yet I’m glad to get the reminder from a little VW Bug that sometimes it’s better not to watch the violence.

And ten years from now…

Yesterday I realized it has been about ten years since I first finished a “novel.” It was nowhere near the word count necessary, but it was not a short story to me. I wrote it in a notebook, and then spent many laborious hours typing it into the family computer. I still have that first notebook draft, and the first computer file. That was ten years ago, I can hardly believe that. I learned how to type, when I wrote that story, and I learned to write for an audience; I learned a lot about editing, and about characters who would not do what I wanted them to do. I would still like to go back, someday, and turn that story into a real novel. I like the characters as much today as I did back then, and I think with ten years experience I can write it as those characters deserve their story to be written.

I would not have been able to write that story, at fourteen, if I had not ten years earlier composed my first story. I never wrote any of my stories down until I was in middle school, but I wrote them in my head, etching characters and plots and settings in my mind so that I can still recall many of them. I wrote them for myself, so there was never any judgment on it being a good or bad story; if it bored me, I knew it was a bad story. That was my only criteria. Those ten years of writing stories in my head meant that when I finally chose to set one down on paper, it was a good one. It was hard work, to sit with pencil and paper, labor over it day by day, when my thoughts went so much faster than my pencil.

Now, in the present, I am in the process of editing a novel of approximately 135,000 words. Everything I learned ten years before, twenty years before, makes an impact on what I write. I would not be able to labor through this story, if I had not already labored through the dozens of half finished novels, short stories, and novels I’ve worked on over the past ten years. That first short novel was the first of many, in notebooks, random pieces of paper, and my laptop. This is the longest work I have ever attempted, and I would not be able to make heads or tails of it if it were not for the past twenty years I thought I was spinning my wheels.

I wanted each of those stories, the ones in my head, the ones in notebooks, the ones that were never finished, to be this story. Some of them came very close, in different ways, and I don’t intend to abandon them forever. Yet this story, in setting and characters and plot, is very much related to my first real attempt to write a story for someone else to read. It’s not lost on me that my audience, my first reader, is the same person, either. It makes me wonder what kind of a story I will be able to write ten years from now. Because this story, as good as it is, could be even better.

Lent is for sinners…

I started practicing Lent when I was in high school. I do not attend a liturgical church, but in middle school I was introduced to the idea by the middle school youth group leader. I admit, part of my interest was Catholic-envy, and part of it was personal; I don’t think much of it, in high school, was spiritual. All I knew, at that point, was I was supposed to give up something, so that was what I did and it always went well, from my point of view. I would give up something like ice cream, or chocolate, or sweets, and usually about halfway through the 40 days I didn’t care anymore if I had ice cream or whatever on Sunday. I took that as what a successful Lent looked like. That’s what I had in mind for this year, too. The last post I wrote was full of all my plans for what I was going to accomplish, and how I was going to feel at the end of the Lenten season.

And then I failed miserably. For the first time, Lent has been a season for me not of success and doing something, but of failing and trying and failing again. In high school I would give up something like ice cream, and find myself not even caring to eat it, halfway through the fast. This year, not even close. Over and over, I have told myself I will not think those thoughts, and I will not put that food in my mouth, and end up brainlessly doing both. I made plans for how I would give to charity, and never followed through. Why? Because I have no more willpower or self control, maybe. Because I am a sinner? Definitely.

Lent is for sinners. Lent reminds me that I am a sinner, and reminds me of my need for a Savior, drawing me closer to Jesus Christ. Even the fact that I have failed miserably tells me that I need Jesus. So this Easter, I will not feel accomplished, or successful. Part of me hopes for a little peace, but all I really want is for the guilt to be gone. Lent reminds me that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. I put myself in the place of the sinner, and suddenly Easter takes on a whole new meaning; redemption becomes reality, as I am given another day, another chance, a new life. Lent is for sinners, for sufferers, for anyone who knows that darkness just before dawn. And it is always darkest just before dawn.

Push through to the end…

When I was a teenager, I took ballet lessons. I wanted more than anything to be a professional dancer, so I dragged it out a bit longer than I should have, and eventually quit cold turkey when my health wouldn’t let me keep on dancing. Even now, when I get the urge to dance, it doesn’t last very long because it usually hurts.

And then I think, I danced through the hurt before. What’s wrong with me?

I danced with bloody toes, blisters, tendinitis, and shin splints; I danced through rejection and little improvement and constant mistakes; I danced through the fear of falling. I danced when I felt like it, and I danced when I didn’t feel like it. I put myself in some of the most terrifying and painful situations of my life because I wanted to dance.

Now, I don’t want to dance anymore. My smallest is goal is that I could get through Lent without feeling like an utter failure. Why can’t I harness some of the courage and grit that got me through ballet classes, and rehearsals, and summer intensives, and performances, and use it on my current career and life choices?

Is it because the hurts have more weight, and the results matter more than not being given a good role in the Nutcracker? Or is it because I have lost my courage entirely, and don’t believe I can effect change in my life anymore? Or maybe it’s simply because all teenagers have more energy and determination than they know what to do with.

I want to have that same energy and determination that I did, but if it also comes with the price of ignorance, it’s maybe too high a price. Or maybe it comes at the price of pride, constantly seeking my own good without a care for the needs of others. Sometimes I think it actually comes at the price of success, because maybe what I am most afraid of is that I will actually succeed at what I want, and that is a frightening thought. Anything truly great that I think of doing is terrifying.

I experienced plenty of bad things because of what I forced myself to dance through; my feet will never be the same, not to mention my health or my self image. But that courage, that determination, that belief that what I wanted was within my grasp so long as I worked for it, I want that back. I’m counting the cost of it, because I can’t have everything, but I want it back. I want to finish this Lenten fast more courageous than I began it, more resilient to suffering. Lent focuses that courage and determination in the right way, focusing me on God, not ballet. But it’s the same choices that I make that will bring me to the end of Lent; it’s the same idea that there is a reason to suffer. Only the something greater to be had can only be reached through denying the flesh and seeking God.

But that doesn’t make it any easier for me to humble myself and suffer. I wish it did. I remember the things I convinced myself to do for ballet, and I can’t say now that I do the same for God. That humiliates me. Still, that’s not a bad place to start Lent from. I only hope by Easter I don’t have so many regrets over wasted time and wasted passion.