#100: Participate in a Tricycle online retreat

I began meditating in earnest back in October 2009. I had spent the previous eighteen months working on some personal issues, and had arrived at a point where I was in a better spot, but still in need of self-care. I had heard so many reports regarding the myriad benefits that meditation could provide (everything from curing physical ailments, to easing mental pain, to even providing spiritual enlightenment) that I decided a few minutes of sitting quietly, breathing and focusing each morning would probably be a good activity to begin. So I spent most of the summer of 2009 trying to meditate – and failing miserably. After a minute or two my legs would hurt, or my back would ache, or my mind would be so ridiculously bored that I would abandon the session just minutes after it started. I left each attempt feeling frustrated, annoyed, and/or defeated. Not exactly the end results I was hoping for.

After several months of experiencing growing hostility towards the whole notion of meditation, I learned of a retreat opportunity that basically promised to give people a solid start on the path of meditation. When I researched the center and found out that not only was it just a day’s drive away, but also completely free, I signed up for the next available session (after consulting with my husband – who wanted to make sure that the place wasn’t some sort of cult. It wasn’t.). :) Shortly thereafter, I spent 12 days in a very intensive meditation experience; and while I absolutely hated parts of it (and yes, tears were shed), I also deeply appreciated some moments. Most importantly, though, I left the center with solid instructions on how to meditate – and “proof” that I could do it. I drove away from the center with an established daily mediation practice – which was exactly what I had hoped for.

It’s been almost five years since that retreat, and I am happy to report that I have maintained a daily meditation practice. I rise early and meditate each morning, even when on vacation, traveling, visiting family, taking road trips, etc. – and the practice has served me well. While I haven’t attained pure enlightenment, I absolutely notice a difference in my mental state on the few days each year when I don’t/can’t meditate – and I definitely feel better (and behave better) on the days when I do meditate.

Meditation is a skill – and while daily practice helps to maintain current levels of “proficiency”, more focused experiences assist with deepening and growing the ability. (It’s similar to an athlete engaging in daily practice drills versus a more intensive training camp.) I have been on a few shorter, less intense retreats over the past few years (some lasting a week, others a few days, still others just an afternoon), and have gained positive insights and perspectives at each one.

But getting away (even for a “mini-retreat”) can sometimes pose a challenge with the various responsibilities I have in everyday life. As much as I wonder how my life might have been different if 1) I knew about Buddhism before 2009, and/or 2) I had somehow chosen to be a nun versus a layperson, I know enough to know that such speculation is not only unhelpful, but unhealthy. I am who I am, and I have the life I have. My “job” in this lifetime isn’t to wonder ‘What if?’ (or worse, pine for a different past), but instead to accept what is, and to make the most of what might be ahead of me.

So instead of wishing for things that I can’t have, I choose to research what is possible. One resource I found early in my discovery journey was Tricycle – a non-profit educational organization dedicated to making Buddhist teachings and practices broadly available. Among their many resources are a quarterly magazine, books, blog posts, interviews, films, and online retreats.

I subscribed to their magazine, read a few of their e-books, poked around their website and located several interesting posts and informative interviews – but resisted the idea of participating in one of their online retreats. I’m not exactly sure why… Did I think I lacked the discipline to complete a multi-week commitment? [Hardly. Not only did I completed multiple years of formal education as a younger adult, but over the past 30+ months I have worked through 90% of the 101 tasks I declared I wanted to complete just over 2 years ago… I think my ability to follow through speaks for itself.] Was I skeptical about the benefits I might gain from a virtual versus in-person interaction? [Not really. I have learned volumes through listening to a variety of podcasts, so I know from first-hand experience that digital formats yield just as much opportunity for meaningful knowledge exchange and acquisition as face-to-face sharing.] Did I not want to invest the time required for this pursuit? [Unlikely. I have willingly spent weeks of vacation sitting in silence on a cushion instead of on a sunny beach.] I truly don’t know what my hang-up was; all I know was that each time I considered a virtual retreat, I felt resistance – so I set the idea aside.

So, all of this is how item #100 made it onto my 101 list. I knew if I made a public commitment to complete an online retreat, it would get done. I’m a woman of my word, if nothing else. :)

Last fall I spent several days at a wellness spa. In addition to taking yoga classes, receiving massages, and lounging on a deck chair, I started (and completed) an online retreat.

When I reviewed the various topics available, I had a bit of difficult deciding which one to select – there were so many juicy items to choose from! Should I focus on how to befriend my perpetually thinking mind? How to become more comfortable with death? How to bring more ease and joy into practice? Eventually I decided on a retreat titled “Natural Bravery”. Despite my willingness to try almost anything, and my sincere comfort with looking “silly” (foolish, naïve, etc.), I still live with a lot of fear. I am working hard to not allow fear to prevent me from doing what I want, or to induce incredible anxiety within me (as it has for most of my life) – but this is work. So I thought of all the possible retreat topics to explore, I might benefit most directly from this one.

The retreat was structured as a series of four online videos, each 20-30 minutes long. The teacher gave a talk on one specific facet of the overall retreat topic in each video, then offered items to reflect on, and finally provided a few meditation instructions to follow. The intention was that a retreatant would watch one video each week, and perform the closing “assignments” over the course of the next seven days – so that each retreat would last for a month.

I suspected that if I attempted to follow this suggested outline, I would abandon the retreat around the second or third week. I could just see myself getting busy, losing focus, or most likely tiring of the assignments. (I could already feel the weight of an anticipatory cognitive burden, and it felt gross.) So I opted to complete one video each evening during my five days/four nights at the wellness spa. (Convenient, non?)

So… how did it go? Interestingly, the online retreat experience was rather anti-climactic. The videos were very similar to audio podcasts I have been listening to for the past few years. As I watched the online retreat videos, I was reminded of positive messages, and I received some helpful instructions and engaging topics/questions to reflect on – but these items and experiences weren’t much different from the “interactions” I have had while driving my car and listening to podcast speakers. Could it be that I have been engaging in daily “mini-retreats” for the past several years without even realizing it?

Maybe. (Probably.) While I gained some new perspectives about fear, courage, bravery, and personal power during this video retreat, I also became aware that this overall experience wasn’t really novel for me – that I have already been using 21st century technology to learn from present-day teachers about timeless universal truths that are slowly transforming my current life. That realization buoyed my heart, and brought a smile to my lips.

tiny_green_buddha

Stef

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Never doubt the compassion of strangers

I adore walking outside in the gorgeous summer months.  During my daily outdoor endeavors I often pass runners and cyclists, parents with children, humans with pups.  I smile at each of these beings, and continue on my merry way.

Occasionally, though, I cross paths with a driver who is speeding along too quickly for our  neighborhood streets, or a menacing animal, or some other danger.  Usually the “threat” is short-lived, and only briefly unsettling.  Annoying, certainly, but otherwise uneventful.

However, this afternoon my route intersected with someone who just didn’t fit the surroundings.  The man I encountered had an air about him that my gut instinctively knew wasn’t ‘right’.  While I am a trusting soul, I also know when to listen to my inner inklings and modify my behavior accordingly.  And while I am a smallish woman, I also know how to stand tall and project a powerful sense of courage (and awareness).  I looked the man in the face (acknowledging his presence and letting him know that *I* knew he was nearby), then casually crossed to the other side of the street.

The man followed me.

Fine.  I started walking towards a more heavily traveled street, confident that the consistent stream of traffic along that route would keep me safe.  But three blocks stood between where I currently was and where I felt I needed to be.  While I wasn’t scared, I did feel unsettled.  Uneasy.

Apparently my feelings were not unfounded; as I walked confidently-but-briskly towards the more heavily traveled road, a fellow citizen happened to drive past the man and I.  The driver’s gut must have sent him some sort of indicator as well, because upon seeing the two of us, he slowed his vehicle.  The driver arrived at the intersection that I was aiming for before I did; but even though his path was clear, he stopped his vehicle at the “T” in the road.  Instead of turning right (as his car’s blinker indicated was his intention), he waited until I arrived at that same fork in the road.  When I made my turn onto the busy street, the driver continued watching me and the man who was following me.  The man on foot saw that the driver was now watching him, and decided he had better change his plans.  The man on foot turned 180 degrees, and started walking away me and the driver, heading back in the direction he had originally come.

Once the driver saw that 1) the man on foot changed his course, and 2) I was now among lots of other people, he smiled gently at me, then completed his right turn and drove away.

Now, I can’t say whether anything would have happened had the driver not shown up on the scene when he did.  The area I was walking in is a residential neighborhood with many houses lining the road; I imagine that on the off-chance something had actually occurred, a good scream or two would have called at least a few neighbors outside to investigate.  And I wasn’t actually scared at all during the entire situation – just uneasy.  Still, I’m very grateful that a Good Samaritan chose to acknowledge his sense of something feeling “off”, and decided to take a small-yet-powerful action to help a fellow citizen (instead of rationalizing the scene and turning his back on a stranger).  To the unknown, unnamed commuter who took a few extra minutes at the end of a long work day to help ensure the safety of some random woman on a walk: thank you.

Good-Samaritan

Stef

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#40: Visit the James J Hill House (a Minnesota Historic Site)

Several years ago, I spent two months in a 5th grade classroom as a Student Teacher (completing a requirement for my MAED [Master’s of Arts in Education]). My supervising teacher was a middle-aged man named Mr. P, and he was a wonderful educator. In his twenty-plus years of teaching he had found an exceptional balance between discipline and fun, seriousness and play. He knew when he needed to transition from the role of “teacher” to instead become a mentor, a parent, or a friend. He pushed the kids who needed extra challenges, and rallied for the ones who struggled. He showed me what skilled teaching looks like, and helped me develop my own sense of confidence and presence in front of what I consider to be the most challenging group of people to present to: children.

One of the many tasks I helped Mr. P complete during our semester together was planning class fieldtrips. One location he was adamant about taking his students was the James J Hill House. He told me that two of his favorite locations were The Grand Tetons and the JJ Hill House (as he fondly called it [as if he and the house were besties who had nicknames for one another]). While he couldn’t manage the logistics required to take 28 ten-year-olds over 1,000 miles away from their homes in a trek to Wyoming, he could secure a school bus and get them across town. He had made the trip to the Hill House with each of his classes for over 20 years, and expected to continue the tradition for as long as he managed a classroom.

I don’t know why Mr. P was such a fan of the James J Hill house. In looking at their website, to me the place seemed be just another big house constructed in the 1800s by rich white guys. Yet, I had (and continue to have) very high regard for Mr. P – so if he said the JJ Hill house was something worth seeing, I had to believe that making the visit would be worth my while. So when I created my 101 list over two years ago, I included the James J Hill house (and all of the other Minnesota Historical Sites) in honor of my teaching mentor. Mr. P, this one’s for you.

Earlier this week I visited the James J Hill website to secure information necessary to complete this task (i.e., location, hours of operation, parking situation, etc.). When I clicked on the “Plan a Visit” link, I read, “The best way to see the James J. Hill House is to take a 75-minute guided tour. Reservations are recommended.” Noted. With this prompting, I called the house and asked if I could be included on their Saturday 2 pm tour. The kind receptionist told me that she could accommodate my request. Boom. Done.

I arrived at the Hill house ten minutes before 2 pm on a gorgeousSaturday afternoon. Walking through the main door, I was warmly greeted by a receptionist who confirmed my name on the tour roster, then invited me to read through a brochure that provided an overview to the house or peruse the gift shop while I waited for the event to begin. I chose the first option, and began establishing my bearings with the space I was about to explore. (Note: If you want to pause the below slide show at any point, hover your mouse over the bottom-middle portion of the picture, then click on the middle “pause” button. To resume the slide show, click on that same middle button [which will then be a “play” button].)

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Just a few minutes later (promptly at 2 pm), a woman in her late 50s gathered the tour group, smiled broadly at us, and welcomed us to the James J Hill House with such sincerity that I wondered if she was related to the family. (She’s not – she’s just a genuinely kind person.) Before she began her comments, I quickly looked around at my fellow tour participants – and was surprised by both the number and diversity of people on the tour. With the weather outside being so amazing, I had expected just a few people to choose to spend part of the afternoon inside a historical site. However, 18 people stood along side me – and a few of them were in their 20s! A few more were in their 30s, and the remainder of the group was evenly spread between 40-70 year olds. Quite unexpected.

Before we walked anywhere, our tour guide shared the basics of the Hill family and their locally-known house. Much of the information she shared I had read just a few minutes ago (in the brochure), but I did learn a few new facts:

  • In addition to eight of their children, the Hills had 10-12 servants who also lived with them in the house.
  • To accommodate the needs of their family, servants, social commitments, and social status, the Hills built their home large. Specifically, the home has 42 rooms (22 of which have a fireplace). As our guide explained, “At the time of James J Hill, a man built his home to reflect his level of success.”
  • Not only is the home massive, it was also incredibly modern for its time. For example, even though it was completed in 1891, it had electric lights, indoor water throughout (cold and hot!), electric heating, gas fireplaces, a security system that included electric-wiring for the windows (so an alarm would sound if a window was opened when the system was active)… Not only was Mr. Hill rich, but he was a truly smart, practical, and strategic man. [More on him later.] :)
  • When both James and Mary Hill died, their children inherited the home. Not wanting to be burdened with maintaining such a massive space, they donated the house to the Catholic church [if you scroll to the very end of this blog post you’ll see why]. The church turned the home into a nun’s teaching college, but after 50 years decided to donate it to the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS). In addition to providing tours, MNHS also uses the space to host weddings, concerts, Easter egg hunts, winter holiday events, and even high school proms. Which made me pause and think, “I wonder what Mr. Hill thinks of his ‘perfect’ home being occupied by obnoxious teenagers for multiple evenings each year…?”

Once our group learned the basics of the house, our guide began to walk us through the home. As we stopped in the first room (a sparsely decorated sitting area), our guide mentioned that many of the rooms in the home were lacking in furniture, since much of it was lost over the years. (While the Hill children didn’t want the house itself, they did help themselves to the contents within it.) However, every room had a photo in it that shows what the space looked like when it was fully decorated. While these visuals weren’t quite the same as walking into a fully outfitted room, the images were very helpful in sharing a sense of what the space truly felt like back in the 1890s:

10_room photo documentation

As we turned to leave this first room, our guide directed our attention to a black gate blocking an exterior door, and told us that this was original to the Hill home (not an addition the MNHS made). Mr. Hill took security very seriously, so in addition to the wire-lined windows (mentioned previously), he ensured that every door had a wrought iron gate that pulled across it (and slid into a pocket door when not in use, so as to not be an eyesore). Impressive.

11_security

From here, our group walked to an art gallery within the home. At first, I though this room was a space the MNHS had re-purposed from its original intended use – but our guide made clear that Mr. Hill collected art over his lifetime, and designed this room specifically with the intention of showing off his acquisitions. (Interesting fact: Hill spent $1.7 million on art. Holy buckets! I wonder how much that would equate to in 21st century dollars?)

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Many of the pieces Hill housed in this space are now in galleries across the state, so the MNHS does take liberty to show pieces from local modern artists alongside some of the original works Hill displayed. The set below made me laugh out loud; I bet the Victorian, prim-and-proper Hill patriarch never imagined THIS would be in his home! :)

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Exiting the art gallery, our group walked into the Grand Hall of the house. This is where all guests were received, as well as where entire evenings were spent. Our guide let us know that the space measures 2,000 square feet. Did you catch that? A hallway that is two-thousand square feet. (I.e., this “hallway” is bigger than my entire house.) Crazy.

16_grand hall

We continued walking, and entered a room where some articles of clothing that the Hill family wore were on display. These are items that James, Mary, and their daughters and sons wore on a “regular” day; I still can’t get over how fancy ‘everyday’ life was for them!

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Leaving the room, I saw a piece of furniture that caught my attention. I adore rocking chairs, and imagine this one was comforting to a family that, despite their immense wealth, may not have known a lot of genuine comfort. I could visualize some of the kids sitting side-by-side on the seat, cuddling with each other and feeling soothed by the gentle-yet-constant motion of the chair, and the image made me smile.

19_rocking chair

Moving on, we made our way to the formal dining room. Another massive space, it was designed expressly to impress guests. The table is able to seat over 40 people at once (it can be expanded by dropping in additional leafs), and when a dinner party was held, guests were confronted with a 14-piece flatware setting.

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Yet while the Hill family could put on a good show (and from all accounts, they did this regularly and convincingly), when they were alone in the home they put all of the pomp aside, and kept things casual and intimate – as demonstrated by the family dining room, where the Hills ate their “everyday” meals:

22_family dining

The Hill family portion of the tour wrapped up with a walk through their living room and personal library. While the den didn’t do much for me, I adored the library; it was dark, but felt super-cozy – like wrapping a nice blanket around me on a cold winter day. Had I lived in the Hill house, I imagine I would have spent many hours in that space.

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(And since we’re on the topic of libraries: Mary Hill kept a diary for nearly 40 years – and all of it has been digitized and is available online. So if you want a peek into what this woman scribed during the second part of her life, you can explore her journal entries here.)

At this point, our tour group took a forced “intermission” and sat down to watch a 10-minute video on the life of JJ Hill. I’m not usually a fan of videos on a museum tour, but this one moved quickly and shared a lot of cool details about the life and times of Mr. Hill. Here are a few fun factoids I learned:

  • James Hill wasn’t born into wealth; he made all of his own money. While many people disliked him (and for good reason), I gotta give him props for working hard and truly earning every penny he acquired.
  • Hill created the Great Northern Railway – and was on-site for the construction of the entire line.
  • Hill also created the Stone Arch Bridge, and helped found the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
  • He was a man of both business and art, of logic/reason and aesthetics. This balanced set of attributes is one reason why the house is so well-designed; Hill was strategic and practical. (It’s why 16 of the 22 fireplaces in the home are gas – Hill didn’t want to perpetually clean ashes. It’s why the interior of the home is made of brick walls and steel beams – Hill knew the risks of fire, and wanted his home to be indestructible [and it is]. It’s why the house has such a sophisticated-yet-unobtrusive security system – Hill wanted to balance safety with visual appeal.) Say what you will about the man, he was one smart, future-thinking guy.

When the video ended our guide resumed the walking portion of the tour through the home – but the remainder of the spaces we visited focused on the Hill’s servants. Which actually makes sense; considering that the Hill house staff were just as numerous as the Hill family itself, it’s only logical that we should spent as much time exploring the spaces they occupied as the rooms the Hill’s populated. First up: the staff living quarters:

Note how sparse and plain this space is, compared to how elaborate and ornate the other rooms in the house are.

Note how sparse and plain this space is, compared to how elaborate and ornate the other rooms in the house are.

While the servant’s living rooms were on the third floor, the majority of their time was spent in the basement – another plain space. (Though I have to say that compared to many present-day “unfinished” basements, this one is actually quite nice! While it does have exposed pipes and beams overhead, it also has pretty fancy tile and wood throughout.)

26_basement

Once our feet touched the basement floor, our group took an immediate right turn – and saw the Hill house servant command center:

27_call tower

When a family member wanted a servant, s/he rang the buzzer in whatever room s/he was in – and the corresponding arrow activated on the top section of the above switchboard (along with a loud buzzing sound – like an old English house buzzer). Once the family member was placated, the arrow was reset to neutral, and the panel awaited the next request. Interestingly, this switchboard was also the way the home’s Head of Security was notified if one of the window wires got tripped. The appropriate arrow on the bottom section of the board would spring up, and a different (but equally loud) alarm would sound. With that notification, the security man would “grab the silver-barreled Colt .45 that Mr. Hill gave him”, and investigate. (Fun fact #1: The present-day family members of that now-deceased security man still have the gun that Hill issued. Fun fact #2: The home was never broken in to.)

Feeling safe (wink), our tour group moved to the next-most-important room in the home: the kitchen. It was interesting to note that the very large space had absolutely no cupboards (they weren’t “invented” until the 19th century). But it did sport a large work table, and industrial-size range/stove:

28_kitchen

From here, we walked down a very short hallway and entered the laundry room – which turned out to be just as large as the kitchen. With all of the clothing that eight children and two adults require (as well as uniforms for an entire staff), I imagine washing garments was a never-ending task. Nor an easy one; just check out all of the gear required to clean clothes circa 1890:

Just as present-day restaurants use a three-sink cleaning method for dishes (wash, rinse, sanitize), the Hill staff used a three-sink method for cleaning clothes (soak, scrub, rinse). [The final sink was used for “blueing” – a precursor to bleaching.

Just as present-day restaurants use a three-sink cleaning method for dishes (wash, rinse, sanitize), the Hill staff used a three-sink method for cleaning clothes (soak, scrub, rinse). [The final sink was used for “blueing” – a precursor to bleaching.

This large iron was used for sheets, tablecloths, and other sizeable flat items. It was very new-to-market when the Hills purchased it back in the late 1890s.

This large iron was used for sheets, tablecloths, and other sizeable flat items. It was very new-to-market when the Hills purchased it back in the late 1890s.

On sunny, dry days, all clothing was hung on a line to dry. But what to do on rainy (or winter) days? The items were draped over small dowels, then the panel was pushed in to an enclosed space that had hot air blowing in the back. Ingenious! (And kind of wild.)

On sunny, dry days, all clothing was hung on a line to dry. But what to do on rainy (or winter) days? The items were draped over small dowels, then the panel was pushed in to an enclosed space that had hot air blowing in the back. Ingenious! (And kind of wild.)

What to do about socks? (I imagine it would be easy for them to fall off the slats [and maybe catch fire?].) Apparently this is the answer.

What to do about socks? (I imagine it would be easy for them to fall off the slats [and maybe catch fire?].) Apparently this is the answer.

Before our tour came to a close, our guide walked us through a final room: the furnace. In an ordinary home, a furnace is probably not anything noteworthy. But in a 42-room mansion built in the 1890s in one of the coldest states in the Union, a powerful furnace is a necessity. And boy howdy, did this furnace deliver:

Just look at the size of this beast! (For comparison, look at the standard-size wheelbarrow that sits in front of the furnace door.) While the specific dimensions of this furnace weren’t shared, I have to guess it was at least 40 feet tall, and maybe 20 feet wide? (And who knows how deep it ran.) Absolutely insane. We were told that a horse-drawn truck delivered mountains of coal to the home on a weekly basis. Again, insane.

Just look at the size of this beast! (For comparison, look at the standard-size wheelbarrow that sits in front of the furnace door.) While the specific dimensions of this furnace weren’t shared, I have to guess it was at least 40 feet tall, and maybe 20 feet wide? (And who knows how deep it ran.) Absolutely insane. We were told that a horse-drawn truck delivered mountains of coal to the home on a weekly basis. Again, insane.

After marveling at the sheer scale of the furnace, our guide asked if we had any final questions. (This tour group was great, and only asked a handful of appropriate questions during the entire 90 minutes we were all together [unlike the pesky group at the Alexander Ramsey house].)   Once our final curiosities had been placated, she released us through the servant entrance/exit, and invited us to stroll the grounds before departing for the afternoon. I walked from the back of the home to the front, snapping a few photos along the way:

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I can see why Mr. P is such a fan of the James J Hill house. The story of James J has lots of great morals (including the positive story of earning what one receives, the example of supporting art and design while pursuing business), and the home shows great contrasts between life 125 years ago versus now. The staff at this site is also quite good; our tour guide was one of the best I have come across in my two-plus years of engaging in various adventures. (She provided appropriate amounts of information and levels of detail, and kept us moving forward without ever making us feel rushed.) And the home itself is truly impressive. While initially I was hesitant (almost resistant) to complete this 101 task, I can now say not only am I glad I did it, but I would take family or friends here if they wanted to see it and experience it again.

36_JJ Hill House

Stef

Posted in 101 in 1001, day zero project, postaday, wplongform | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#28: Participate in a National Day of Prayer

If you have been following this blog for a while, you know that I am a spiritual seeker with an insatiable desire to learn more about new-to-me topics – especially ones that help me better understand people and cultures that are different from me. (And if you are newer to this blog, no worries! Just read the items linked above, and you’ll be all caught up.) :)

So when I first learned about the National Day of Prayer a few years back, I thought it would be a good event for me to participate in at least one time – just so I could see what it was about, and perhaps gain more insights into and/or appreciation for conservative Christians (a religious group I do not understand [and often disagree with]).

I had no idea how an event like this might unfold, so I think I went into it with minimal expectations – which I like, as that allows me to more fully experience whatever actually occurs (versus get bogged down by what I think “should” happen). I did my best to walk through the main doors of a local participating church with an open mind and a receptive heart, ready to be led in whatever way the universe/god/a higher power felt best.

I arrived at the designated house of worship at 6:20 am. As I made my way into the church’s foyer, I was greeted warmly by a middle-aged woman (who was incredibly alert for the early hour). She directed me to a gathering room where the event was about to begin, invited me to put on a name tag, and encouraged me to help myself to whatever refreshments I might want. After securing a cup of tea, I sat down at a table next to a newly married couple in their early 20s, a 47-year-old writer and father of two teenage girls, one semi-retired woman in her 50s, and two retired stay-at-home moms in their early 60s. We each took turns introducing ourselves, and engaged in polite chit-chat as more people trickled into the room.

By 6:30 am, the meeting space held twenty people. All of us were white, and (save for the newly married couple) middle-aged or slightly older. The chipper woman who greeted me when I first entered the church walked to the front of the room, stood behind a podium, and asked us all to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance. We did as we were asked, and at the end of the recitation the woman smiled at us and said, “That warms my heart. You know, we don’t say the Pledge very often any more, do we?” She continued to explain that she recently volunteered at the elementary school her daughter attends, and was shocked to discover that the students no longer say the Pledge each morning. She concluded, “It’s appalling that we have removed God and country from our schools – especially now, as this great nation needs our prayers and repentance more than ever.”

At this moment, I knew my best course of action for making it through the rest of the event without offending anyone, making myself irate, or being kicked out of the building, was to approach this task like a reporter would approach an assignment – to take nothing personally, but instead make notes of the facts from a purely objective standpoint. I quickly pulled out a small blank journal and pen, and documented the high-level events that transpired.

The gathering was structured as follows: One pre-determined speaker went to the podium and read Bible passages/offered prayers relevant to one particular facet of the country. Once the leader finished his/her prepared comments, anyone else in the room could take a few minutes and share a prayer on that topic area if they wanted to. After everyone who wanted to offer a prayer had done so, the next leader came to the podium, and the process repeated itself with the second topic area, then the third, and so on, until all seven topic areas had been addressed.

The first prayer topic was “Our Government”, and the Bible passages that were read were:
– First Timothy 2:1-2
– Exodus 18:21
– Proverbs 21:1
– Psalms 9:20

Topic #2 was “The Military”, and the Bible passages offered were:
– Psalms 18:32
– Psalms 28:7
– Isaiah 20:49
– Psalms 34:18
– Deuteronomy 33:12
– Lamentations 3:21-22
– Romans 5:5
– Numbers 30:2
– Ephesians 6:11
– Psalm 91

The leader made a special effort to call attention to those who are currently serving in the military, those who are or have been wounded, those who have died in service, veterans, and the families of all service members past and present.

The third focus area was “The Media”, and the leader for this section offered a single Bible verse: Philippians 4:8.

After the media came “Business, Industry, and Commerce”, and the leader here cited:
– Isaiah 48:17
– Deuteronomy 30:2-4
– Job 42:10
– Malachi 3:10
– Matthew 6:19-20
– Luke 19:13

At this point, when the opportunity for open prayer sharing came, I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer. After hearing no less than five different petitions for more domestic manufacturing and a revival of Christ-centered businesses whose employees are unafraid to exert their First Amendment rights to practice their Christian faith boldly and proudly in the workplace, I calmly-but-confidently offered prayers for: fair wages around the world, environmental protection (specifically, 1] that businesses stop stripping the land of natural resources simply so that they can access cheap fuel, and 2] that businesses take steps to reduce pollution that currently results from cheap mass manufacturing), and that all beings receive what they need in order to live healthy, happy, and peace-filled lives.

Interestingly, once I finished my prayer, the next speaker scrambled to the podium and began the next topic area, which was “Education”. Here again a sole Bible verse was offered: Proverbs 3:5-6.

After Education came “The Church”, and the speaker read aloud one passage: Matthew 16.

The event closed with a focus on “Family”, and this leader called attention to Bible verses:
– Psalms 92:12-15
– Hebrews 10:23-24
– John 10:4-5
– Isaiah 54:13
– Luke 2:52
– Psalms 102:18

Throughout the course of the above readings, this speaker focused on multiple elements of family, including parents, spouses, children, and grandchildren.

During each speaker’s prepared comments as well as during the open sharing sections, I took notes of various words and phrases that kept surfacing.  Here’s a visual summary of the session themes:

National Day of Prayer wordle

When the final segment of “open sharing” drew to a close, the original facilitator (i.e., the greeter woman who led us through the Pledge of Allegiance) encouraged each of us to make prayer an integrated, working part of our daily lives, then cheerily wished that we all “Have a good morning!” I found this happy send-off rather jarring, because for the previous two hours, most of the individuals in the meeting room had been at some stage of crying (some weeping mildly and silently, others with tears flowing freely, and a few wailing aloud) and complaining (or “praying”, as they liked to call it). Yet on a dime, the tears were wiped away, the pained faces were replaced with smiles, and everyone happily skipped off to the parking lot to slip into their vehicle and drive away. I was simultaneously stunned and surprised.

During the event, so many things were said that I do not agree with (and in some cases I outright oppose), and hearing the barrages of comments hit on many raw nerves within me. But I tried to let those things slide away (as I know in my heart that the majority of the sentiments shared during the gathering were fear-based and simply untrue), and instead chose to focus on the few messages of genuine peace and love that did surface – such as:

  • “Bless the work of the men and women in the military, that their light would shine on all of those around them as they move throughout the world.” [My interpretation: Let these individuals be instruments of peace and love.]
  • “Place a hedge of protection around the little hearts and minds of our children, that they may remain centered on what is good, honorable, and true.” Amen to that! Imagine what could happen if all children remained untainted by prejudice and hate.
  • “Deliver us from a world of self-absorbed media and meaningless trivia.” Absolutely. If all people traded one hour of reading Facebook for one hour of volunteering, think of the tremendous positive impact that could have! (Not only on the people being ‘helped’, but also [especially] on the ones giving the ‘helping’.)
  • “So often it is about us. Break us of our selfishness.” Yes, yes, yes.
  • “Prayer matters. What we think about and pray for are the ripples that begin to move us to action.” So true. What one thinks, one becomes. So choose thoughts wisely – because ideas become intentions, and intentions ultimately turn into actions.

My intention for this 101 item was to gain insight into (and maybe even appreciation for) conservative Christians. While this experience did more to confirm my initial perceptions of this religious group than it did to offer me new perspectives, I am still pleased that I participated in a National Day of Prayer event at least once. (And who knows, maybe I was able to affect a few hearts or minds in the room?) That being said, I don’t think I need to go to one of these gatherings again next year (or the year after that, or the year after that…) I feel better sticking to my more liberal ways. :)

Stef

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Beyond 101: Participate in World Book Night

What Is It? World Book Night (WBN) is a world-wide effort to get books into the hands of adult light- and non-readers. It is held annually on April 23 – Shakespeare’s birthday. Volunteers register to receive 20 copies of a book, then promise to distribute those books somewhere in their local community, doing their best to give books only to light- or non-readers.

Why Do It? By promoting reading for pleasure, WBN aims to improve literacy by actively engaging emerging readers in their desire to read. With improved literacy, an individual improves his/her opportunities for employability, social interaction, enfranchisement, and positive mental and physical health. Additionally, book readers are more likely to participate in pro-social activities such as volunteering and attending cultural events.

Okay, But Why Should I Do It? Well, why not? :) I’m a huge fan of libraries/reading/education, so this seemed like a good thing to support. And I adore new experiences, so the fact that I had never done anything like this before sealed the deal for me.

What Happened?

First, I applied to participate in WBN. (There is actually a rather formal process one must complete in order to engage in this activity; I had to explain why I wanted to take part in WBN, and describe where I was going to give away my books should I be selected.) Two months after I submitted my application, I learned that I was confirmed as a 2014 Book Giver. At that point I had to state my top 3 preferences of books to give away from the list of titles available. I ended up with Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim. It’s a graphic novel – which I thought would be a nice choice for people who were light/poor readers, as they can enjoy the images as much as the words, and the volume of text would likely feel less intimidating compared to the amount of text in a dense book.

Then, I got prepared: I went to my pickup site (our city library) a week before the big night and picked up my box of books and bag of supplemental information. I made myself a sign that read, “FREE BOOKS! :)” in big, bold, red lettering, and loaded a sack with the 20 copies of the novel. (Thankfully it’s a small book!)

Finally, I took action: The day of the event I placed an identification sticker on my chest, put a big ol’ smile on my face, and started walking to my destination. I was excited to see if people in the city would be willing to accept a free book from a nice looking girl. :)

I first went to the city Grayhound bus station, thinking that the terminal would be full of people, some of whom would likely be light- or non-readers. However, when I walked into the space, I was surprised to find only two people in the waiting area. With my “Free Books!” sign in hand, I approached the middle aged couple, smiled broadly, and asked, “Would you like a free book?” The woman looked at me skeptically and asked, “Is it really free? I don’t gotta buy nothin’ or nothin’, do I?” I replied, “I promise it’s free,” and extended the book towards her. Hesitantly, she took it from my hands, to which I smiled even wider, said, “Have a nice day!”, and turned before she could try and refuse a solicitation offer that wasn’t coming. :)

Slightly disappointed that my master plan to distribute free books was foiled just two minutes after it began, I shook off the unexpected start and continued walking up the road – where I arrived at the Salvation Army.

Six young, large black men were standing in a group, and I approached them smiling and holding my sign. I greeted them with, “Hi! Would you like a free book?” They all turned to look at me, and three of the six men looked at me like I was crazy, while two of them looked at me skeptically. It was as though I was somehow trying to hustle or con them – which I found delightfully ironic, seeing as how usually they were the ones trying to get something out of me. Turning the tables was even more fun than giving away books! One of the men returned my smile with a grin of his own, and said, “Sure, I’ll take a book!” With the ice broken, four of the additional guys extended their hand to receive the book I extended towards them – while one of them said, “Naw, thanks; I’ll pass.” Fair enough. I nodded at him, and continued my way up the street.

Less than twenty steps later, a small circle of four older white people were standing around smoking. I walked up to them and made eye contact with the only woman in the group. Once again I smiled and said, “Hi! Would like a free book?” nodding to the sign in one hand and the thin paperback in the other. The woman replied with an enthusiastic, “Oh yes, thank you! I’m always lookin’ for sumthin’ to read!” I made the same offer to the three remaining men in the circle, and two of them accepted the book equally enthusiastically, while one accepted the book with a more guarded perspective. After he took the book from my hands I just smiled at him and continued walking up the road.

As I approached the doors to the Salvation Army, a stream of men began filing past me. As each one passed I moved in front of him and repeated my smiling mantra of, “Hi! Would you like a free book?” One of them asked me why I was giving away books, and I explained, “Today is Shakespeare’s birthday, and volunteers all over the country – well, all over the world, actually – are giving away books to celebrate. Would you like one?” The tough-looking black man immediately softened, and responded, “I really like Shakespeare. Sure, I’ll take a book,” and accepted the paperback from me. I offloaded five more books in this quasi walk-by approach, all to black men in their 20s.

Once the line of people passing me ceased, I made my way into the main building of the Salvation Army. A tough-looking white woman staffing the entrance desk looked at me menacingly and barked, “Can I help you?” (with a tone that implied anything but assistance). Ignoring her gruff demeanor, I politely asked, “Yes – I’d like to know if I can come inside and give away a few free books?” My request caught her completely off guard, and she genuinely didn’t know how to respond. She answered, “Um… do you have a permit for that?” I told her, “No, I don’t – but today is World Book Night, so volunteers all over the city are giving away free books – and I’d like to do that here, if it’s okay.” After a second of mental processing, the woman softened ever-so-slightly, and said, “Hey – I remember reading something about that a few weeks ago.” Just as she was about to give me the green light to enter (I think), a homeless man pushed his way through the entrance and barked at her, “Nancy, I need my chair – NOW!” Nancy barked back at the man, “I’m through watching your stuff Kevin; you have to go to medical if you want your chair! I’m not getting it for you!” Kevin and Nancy exchanged some words, and I stood to the side watching the mental volley. After two minutes a tiny pause in the action occurred, and I re-inserted myself with a quick, “So, can I just go over there and see if any of those guys want a book?” I think Nancy had forgotten about me, because her head spun around to my direction, her eyes re-focused on me, and after a second she remembered that I was even there. In a preoccupied tone, she said, “Yeah yeah, sure, go ahead…” She had bigger fish to fry at the moment – so I took advantage of the “distraction” that Kevin caused, and walked into the lobby of the Salvation Army.

I found myself in front of an elevator that I’m assuming went up to the residence portion of the shelter. I approached three residents waiting for the lift, and asked them if they would like a free book. They looked at me as if I were insane. Ignoring their demeanor, I continued and explained that today is World Book Night, so people all across the city, and the country, and even the world!, are giving away free books – and the book I’m giving away is like a comic, but for adults; and would any of you like one?

At this moment the elevator door opened, and six female residents poured out of it. They saw the group of three men (who were still looking at me like I was crazy), and immediately approached, wanting to know what was going on. I delivered my pitch once more, and one of the women replied with, “Pssshhht, I don’t want no comic book.” But at the same time, another of the women smiled and said, “Hey, that sounds cool! Yeah, I’ll take one!” I returned her smile and offered a copy of the novel. With that, two of the men in the original group finally found their voices and told me, “Hey, yeah, I’ll take it. Thanks.” I handed them each a copy of the book, and smiled at them before the group of nine residents made their way out the main door.

With one book remaining in my bag, I approached an older black man sitting in a chair near the entryway. He had been watching me since I first walked inside, so I saved the explanation and simply asked him, “Sir, would you like a book?” He looked at me for half a second, then calmly said, “No thank you. It’s nothin’ personal, mind you; I just don’t read.” Whether he meant that he doesn’t like reading or that he doesn’t know how read, I’m still not sure. But I didn’t pry; instead, I smiled and said, “That’s okay, I’m not offended. I hope you have a nice day all the same.” He nodded his head slightly at me, and I continued moving through the shelter.

A few seconds later, a young white girl stepped near me. I could tell she wanted a book, so instead of making her ask me for one, I quickly said, “Hi! Say, I’m giving away free books today; would you like one?” She smiled broadly, and answered, “Yes please. Thank you!” As I handed the last book over, her eyes grew wide as she took the text in her hands. I wondered when the last time was that someone gave her something ‘just because’.

With my bag now empty, I quietly walked out of the Salvation Army, down the street, and back to the corner where the book-giving activity began. The original group of six young black men were still gathered, and as I approached one of them smiled at me. I smiled back, and as I came within ear shot he called out, “Reading Is Fundamental!”, giving me a ‘thumbs up’ in the process. I laughed out loud, and called back, “You bet it is!”

I smiled all the way back to my car, delighted that not only was I able to share books with people who will truly appreciate them (and who genuinely need them), but that I was also able to give them a story to talk about. I’d call this a very successful literacy-promoting venture.

Stef

P.S. A fun history of RIF throughout the years.  May WBN be as successful 40 years from now!

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#46: Go to a concert at Orchestra Hall

One of the motivating forces behind many of the items on my 101 list is the general idea of taking full advantage of all local offerings before longing to travel and see sights that other cities/countries hold; aka, “Things I Really Should See In The City That I Haven’t Yet Made The Time To Explore”. Certainly a lot of personal growth and expanded awareness occurs as a result of experiencing places and situations beyond one’s “normal” worldview – and I am definitely a fan of such travel. But there is also something to be said for maximizing opportunities that are in one’s own “backyard” – and I crafted this “101” plan in part to help get me out of routines and nudge me to encounter local new and novel happenings.

I have been a fan of classical music for the majority of my life. (Indeed, the original introduction to this post was a page-long narrative of that tale – but after I reviewed that story I realized it was more a telling of my past than a connection to the present, so I chose to replace the intro to this post with the content you just read in the opening paragraph. But, if you are curious about the backstory to this 101 item and want to read about it, you can do so here.) I attended community orchestra concerts in my youth, and professional symphony performances in my high school and college years. But when I began working full time, those musical outings fell by the wayside. Now, one could make the case that I was busier as a working professional than I was a high school/college student – and certainly there is some truth to that statement. However, it’s also true that for my entire professional career, I have worked within six city blocks of the home of the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra. (And for ten of those years, I worked literally across the street from Orchestra Hall.) So really, I had no reason to not attend a concert, save apathy (and laziness).

So two years ago I started to make plans to go to a Minnesota Orchestra performance. But then, things got complicated…

First, Orchestra Hall shut down for renovation just as I was starting to review the orchestra’s performance schedule – so item #46 on the 101 list was delayed a year. Then, once Orchestra Hall re-opened for business, the orchestra went on strike for fifteen months. (Long story short: It was a labor/wage issue between the orchestra board and the orchestra musicians. [If you want to read official reports about the event, this article provides a nice, quick summary.])  [And disclaimer/clarification: The orchestra called the situation a lockout, not a strike. I don’t know the difference between the two…]Either way, yikes. I began to wonder if I would be able to complete this 101 task by my self-appointed deadline. Happily, the orchestra board and the orchestra musicians were able to reach a middle ground (though neither side seems overly pleased with the compromise – but again, that’s another tale for another day), but when I looked at the schedule and tried to secure tickets for a concert, I found that every evening and weekend event was already sold out. (Apparently the year-plus orchestral absence created a pent-up demand for their live music.) Starting to feel a little frustrated, I explored an unlikely opportunity: young people’s concerts.

The orchestra offers concerts for “schools, homeschools and families looking for an outstanding arts experience that is both educational and engaging.” A lovely side benefit of these concerts is that they are cheap! (One ticket to attend a Young People’s Concert costs just $6.25, whereas a regular symphony ticket costs anywhere from $25-$85 [or more], plus a $6 processing fee!) Now, attending a Young People’s Concert also meant that I would have to take a day off of work (as the concerts are offered mid-day on Mondays through Thursdays), and that I would be experiencing the orchestra in the presence of hundreds of children (versus adults), but these were both concessions I was wiling to make. So, on an overcast spring day, I stood in line with a bevy of high-energy kids, and made my way into the newly renovated Orchestra Hall.

As I walked through the glass doors into the airy lobby, the very first thought that came into my mind was how stunning the remodeled space looked, and how welcoming it felt. A sleek architectural design, replete with modern slate-gray floors and brushed chrome accents, blended artfully with light natural wood. Making my way inside the auditorium itself, I saw that geometric sound panels lined the ceiling. While I’m confident these items were chosen for the wonderful acoustics they provided, a nice “side benefit” to the panels is that they lended a slightly “funky” feel to the orchestral space. (Note: “Funky” is used here in a positive context.) :)

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(I wanted to take more pictures of the other areas of Orchestra Hall, but my phone/camera decided to seize up just as I left the auditorium to snap more images.  So, if you want to see the other areas of the newly renovated space, you will need to visit the photo gallery on this MPR blog site.)  [P.S. My phone is fine now.  Just required a hard restart.]

I took a chair in a first-tier balcony section at stage left, about fifty feet (or so) away from the orchestra. As the audience started to fill seats on the main floor, I noticed that most of the students looked to be anywhere from 4th through 8th grade. A few moments later the musicians began to trickle onto the stage, and I saw not one, but two female bassists! (Of 6 total.) And one of these women occupied First Chair! I loved it. (Though I will admit that as I watched the bassists play, I felt an ache in my heart – literally. Clearly I miss the joy of making music with an orchestra.)

Five minutes later, the conductor walked on stage – and at this point I noticed that the main audience section was barely halfway full. I felt disappointed. These concerts are a tremendous opportunity to expose kids to an amazing, world-class cultural experience – and local schools aren’t taking advantage of it. (For a variety of reasons, I’m sure; but still. It made me sad.) The conductor explained that the piece the orchestra was going to play is called “The Rite of Spring” (“Le Sacre du Printemps” in French) by a man named Stravinsky – and that originally, the piece was a collaboration between the music composer Stravinsky and a dancer/choreographer named Nijinsky. (I didn’t know this!) To better explain the backstory to the creation of “The Rite of Spring”, the conductor introduced Lauren Stringer, an author and storyteller, who wrote a children’s book titled, “When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet, and One Extraordinary Riot.” Ms. Stringer read her book aloud to the audience while select illustrations from the text projected on a huge screen above the stage. Additionally, a piano accompanied the reading and added small passages of happy, heavy, confused, or suspenseful music as appropriate (based on the content of the text). It was a true multi-media experience, and the kids seemed really engaged by it. (So was I!) :)

During the ten-minute reading of the book, the kids and I all learned that this work (both the music and the dance went with it) was quite radical for the time when it debuted – so much so that the first performance of this piece was “boo’d” by a sizeable section of the audience. In fact, these individuals felt so upset by this work that they threw hats/gloves/coats/boots at the orchestra, and rioted in the streets after the performance. Holy buckets!

But – an equally strong portion of the audience loved the new direction this piece headed; so much so that they rioted against the symphony patrons who were rioting against the orchestra! Oy…

After the present-day kids got all amped up on the notion of past patrons throwing shoes onto an orchestra stage and engaging in vandalism and violence after a performance, the conductor resumed control of the microphone and explained that “The Rite of Spring” is sometimes called “Scenes From Pagan Russia”, because it celebrates the gods in nature that control the changing seasons. (At least, according to Russian paganism.) The conductor further explained that “The Rite” is one body of music that is separated into two parts, and each section is 15 minutes long. The first section of the work represents the awakening of spring. In this portion, a group of people dance slowly and quietly to represent the thaw of winter. Then an old wise woman takes the stage and “predicts” the arrival of spring. Upon her prediction, a group of young girls dance to represent the unfolding of spring – and when they are done, an old wise man takes the stage and bends down to kiss the earth in gratitude. Then everyone dances in a big group celebration.

Once we received a briefing on what occurs visually in the piece (e.g., when the piece is played with a dance troupe [which did not take place in this outing; this was strictly an orchestral performance]), the conductor stepped onto his platform, and the music began. I really enjoyed knowing the story behind the music – it helped me “follow along” with the orchestra and the emotions they infused into the piece.

As the orchestra played, a two-person camera crew live-streamed the performance to the huge overhead screen where the story illustrations had displayed earlier – so everyone in the audience could see close ups of various musicians performing in real-time. I have never experienced anything like this before – it was super cool.

(An interesting and new-to-me fact: Several of the musicians wore ear plugs. I understand this for the percussion and trumpet sections [and for the people who sit immediately in front of these areas] – but is ear protection necessary for a flute player? A bassoonist? And yet, these musicians [and several others] wore plugs. This seemed rather strange…)

That being said, the orchestra gave a very lively performance. The “Rite” is a very energetic piece, with many contrasts: loud and soft, fast and slow, excited and relaxed – an ample offering of changes and variety to help keep the attention of children.

Precisely fifteen minutes later, the first movement ended. Immediately the conductor picked up his microphone and walked us through the plot line of section #2 – which is as follows:

Night has now fallen in the forest. A handful of people are in the forest, and they are very frightened. But soon, a group of young girls appear, and a lone girl dances in thanks for the gods blessing them all with spring (which alleviates the fear of the original crowd). Sadly, though, the young girl dances herself to death. (Though the word “death” was never used by the conductor. Rather, he explained that “the girl’s life force is returned to the earth”.) And apparently that’s how the whole production ends. Kind of a downer.

But I didn’t have much time to get depressed, because the orchestra members immediately put their instruments up to their chins/chests/mouths and began playing the second movement. As I sat listening, a few random thoughts entered my mind:

  1. If I were in the original audience when this piece debuted, I probably would have occupied the “I don’t like it” camp. I prefer ‘classic’ to ‘modern’ things – be it food, music, dance, fashion, interior design, painting, sculpture, or any other form of artistic expression.
  2. I recently saw a news article explaining how basketball coaches experience a workout right along with their players during a game, because of all the jumping/arm waving/yelling the coaches do throughout the match. As I watched the conductor move with crazy levels of vigor and enthusiasm, I wondered: if a basketball coach and an orchestra conductor went head-to-head, who would the better “athlete” turn out to be?

Another 15 minutes later, the final portion of this performance drew to a close. The audience applauded the conductor, then the orchestra, then the author/storyteller, then the conductor again, then finally the orchestra again. After the conductor and author/storyteller exited the stage, the orchestra members began to pack up their music and walk away as they were ready. This seemed an odd ending to the event: no curtain drawing to a close, everything exposed for everyone to see. Kind of like learning how the sausage is made – it erodes some of the “magic” of the experience. (FYI, that’s just an expression. I don’t eat sausage.) :) But the final element to the closing actions that made me laugh was an announcement that came on over the PA: “We will now be clearing out the auditorium from the back. Please stay seated until your row is released, and walk to your bus in a single-file line.” Ah, if only all concerts were released in such an orderly fashion…

All in all, this outing was a cool experience – but also a sad and painful one. I didn’t realize how much of a void not playing in an orchestra has left in my life until I found myself literally on the verge of tears within moments of the first movement beginning; as I watched bows and fingers articulate in perfect unison I ached to hold an instrument and play along. It hurt. So I don’t know if my heart can take another performance. Honestly.

Stef

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Backstory to 101 Item #46

At the end of our fourth grade year, my classmates and I were invited to attend an “instrument” evening.  The purpose of this gathering was to allow each of us to get a hand’s-on opportunity to try any brass, wood, percussion, or string instrument that caught our eye (with the intention that we would begin playing that instrument in the 5th grade band or orchestra).  When I walked into the huge high school music room and saw an abundance of options before me, I felt a little overwhelmed.  I had no idea what I might want to play, so I meandered around the room, looking at everything but touching nothing.

As I approached the tallest instrument in the room and gazed up at its scroll, a teacher from the high school across town approached me and said in a stern tone, “You can’t play this one – you’re too small.”  I turned my head and looked up at the man, silent.  Literally a second later, my mom approached me to check in, and asked, “So, Stef, have you found an instrument you might want to try yet?”  Looking first at the man, then at my mom, I nodded my head, pointed to the string bass just to the right of the man, and quietly answered, “Yes.  This one.”  The man looked furious.  My mom, unaware of the comment this teacher had uttered just seconds before, said, “Great!  I’ll tell the elementary school orchestra teacher, and we’ll get you signed up.”  My mom turned and walked toward the registration table.  I followed behind her – but not before I looked back over my shoulder, locked eyes with the man, and smiled sweetly. (Take that, you jerk.)  :)

Four years later I secured first chair of the high school string bass section.  The older boys who sat in the second-through-fifth chairs were irked that a freshman girl could play better than they could – but they also recognized that I did possess more skill than each of them.  (And I really did.  Music always came easy to me – and though the string bass was larger than I was, I had no issues learning how to extract beautiful sounds from it.)  After a few weeks the dust settled, and the guys respected me as their section leader and treated me as one of their own.

A few months later the entire high school orchestra took a field trip to Chicago to attend a concert performed by the city’s Symphony Orchestra.  I had been to concerts performed by local community musicians, but this was my first exposure to live music performed by professionals – and I was quite excited.  A supposedly really good cellist was scheduled to play a solo during the concert – and somehow, our high school orchestra director had secured four second row seats to the event, which he shared with his wife, the orchestra’s cello section leader, and me.  Soon after we found our chairs the stage curtain lifted – and I realized I was literally less than 20 feet away from Yo Yo Ma.  Oh. My. God.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t know was that two days before the concert, I had been exposed to the chicken pox virus (compliments of my friend’s two-year-old nephew).  While my sister endured her bout with the pox when I was in third grade, I never contracted the virus – so my parents assumed I just must be immune to the malady.  Indeed, with each successive breakout in elementary school, I returned home unaffected.  I figured my body was just really good at fending off the pox.  And apparently it was – for a while.

However.  When I turned fourteen, I guess my luck with pox immunity ran out – and less than 10 minutes after Yo Yo Ma began playing his stunningly beautiful music, I fell asleep in my concert chair.  The pox had begun their war – and my body surrendered.  I was sick; and I missed a once-in-a-lifetime performance.

For the next three years of high school the orchestra made our annual pilgrimage to Symphony Center in Chicago, and each year I got to see and hear amazing musicians.  But no experience was quite like my intimate-yet-brief encounter with Yo Yo Ma.

Still, I loved attending these concerts, and was grateful for the opportunity to witness true professionals create stunningly beautiful music.  When I finished my senior year of high school, I set my bass in a corner of my parent’s house (as my college dorm room had zero space for such a large instrument).  I had every intention of playing it when I came back home for breaks; but without daily exposure to its strings, my interests drifted to other things – and I never picked up the instrument again.

Sad.  But true.  But sad.

Stef

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