Ode to Joy


Since the election, my mood has trended downward, unable to lift higher than “okay”, just enough to get out of bed in the morning. A pall was cast on the world that night, and I can’t find a way to poke through to let light in.

Tim coming home at Thanksgiving helped, and having him here now for an extended stay has raised my baseline, but life feels like a trudge now, the effort of optimism a burden.

But for a few hours on New Years Eve, I experienced joy again. We went to Oregon Symphony’s year-end performance, which featured a first half of perfectly acceptable music (a tribute to a dedicated former conductor and his lifetime’s work of arrangements) and finished with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Last year on New Year’s Eve, I drove out to dark-sky country and listened to the top 10 classical hits of all time, which ended, of course, with Symphony No. 9. I never gave that symphony a second thought before, because I wasn’t much for “choral symphonies”; I want choirs and symphonies to stay separate. But listening to No. 9, sitting in the car on the edge of a field on a frigid, starry night, I heard it totally differently. No. 9 is a remarkable piece of work, abundant in its instrumentation and voicings, as if inviting everyone who’s ever sung or played a note to participate in lifting up this single thought: joy.

Symphony no. 9 begins with chaos of tuning, then  strikes a bold two-note stance; here I am. Here we go. To me, Symphony no. 9 is about the individual attempt to create one’s life, and it starts with the very first phrase. Here, says Beethoven, is where we will plant our foundation. The second movement, with its racing sixteenths in overlapping voices, trots past onlookers, all action and movement, its goal the momentum building to the crescendo, punctuated by tectonic bass drum blasts, until the rapid finish devolves again into chaos. The third movement is a placid interlude, its opening bars a balm after the burning purpose of movement two. The fourth movement, however, is unmistakably given to chaos and darkness from the first notes. Some interplay occurs between the sweetness of the melody of creation and the brash destruction of the bass drum, and they fight upward into a chaotic swirl. Like taxiing on a runway, the momentum starts and stops, waiting for something to happen.

Beethoven is such a tease: the terraced dynamics bring you to the brink of fulfillment, and then he lays off the gas, and you’re left reaching.

Enters the voice of the baritone, with the statement of the opening lines of the poem from which the symphony gets its title. “Enough dallying!” he says, “enough quarreling! Let’s go!” and sings one of the most beautiful words in German: Götterfunken. It means “lovely divine spark” or (my favorite) “thou beauteous Godly lightning”.

And with that lightning, the music lifts off. In that moment, this ponderous chaos of a symphony rises, an ecstatic shooting skyward of human endeavor. This is fireworks in music.

What makes Beethoven so powerful is his embrace of the messiness of life, his willingness to descend into chaos in harmony and instrumentation, all while celebrating the exuberance of creation and connection. Through the vivid and striking violin melody, the bass drum crashes, a reminder that light does not exist without dark, that chaos precedes order, and order is fleeting.

Beethoven’s insistent dancing through bedlam, the hallmark of his marriage of classical and romantic periods, is what makes his music so intoxicating to me. There is order, he says, at the loss of beauty. We give ourselves over to apathy and death when we allow orderliness to be the guiding thought; here, he says, is joy. HERE is unfettered creation and life. I feel him straining at the bonds of classicism throughout No. 9, particularly in the cascading melodic lines that simulate destruction.

In its outrageous size, No. 9 has space for all of that messiness of life, and gave me hope in our ability to get through this unbearably dark time together. From the allegretto, the sound of the fear gripping us, now that the worst has happened, how do we face what comes next? But we can face it, but only with all of our voices pushing and straining against the conformity required of order.

Beethoven famously renamed his Symphony No. 3 from “Buonaparte”, for Napoleon Bonaparte, who he initially supported, to “Eroica” after finding out Napoleon named himself “Emperor of the French”. Beethoven refused to honor a tyrant with his music.

I like to think we could use music–Beethoven’s and others’–to express our collective will to fight the darkness, to refuse to give in to our own tyrant; we have been mourning the destruction of our society, however fragile our peace, and while we carry with us that frustration, together we will move forward, our collective, intentional joy shutting out the darkness of this new tyranny.

Looking at the stars on a dark, cold night, it isn’t the black sky that causes us to marvel; it’s the millions of pinpricks of light piercing the darkness that keep us enthralled. The infinite void is broken by the light of thousands of suns and planets. In holding high our lights for justice, equality, goodness and kindness, we are the stars in this darkness.




Feelings Machines

I grew up in a family dominated by boys, a group as macho and male-centric as you can get. As the youngest of five, I held a particularly dismissed position, made worse by my gravitation toward music and literature. All my life, I’ve been told that having feelings is bad. Showing emotion is a sign of weakness. Vulnerability. Even outside my family, this is the prevailing message: a premium is placed on “stiff upper lip” and stoicism, something I’ve learned to feign effectively.

My mother was an artist and a musician, my father an avid reader and self-taught musicologist, my sister a fine artist. Art and music and literature were everywhere in our house, and yet the prevailing attitude was that feelings were meant to be feared or avoided, and certainly not discussed.

But I’ve learned in therapy that our bodies — all of our bodies, not just women, not just writers and musicians — are feelings machines. Our five senses provide input to our brains about the world. The senses provide data that we then have to interpret. Feelings are what happen when our brains interpret that data. It’s how we deal with that interpretation that defines who we are.FeelingsMachine

Some of us are “sensitive” people, and some have learned to lock away the process of interpreting this data so it doesn’t show. But all of us do it. Sensitive people may have a more finely honed lens through which we see; things are brighter or sharper, and the input is intense. When we express those impressions to other people, we’re told we are strange or weird. That the world couldn’t possibly look that way. I’ve heard that message my whole life.

Well, until I moved to Portland. Here, I’m rather tame.

Some of us learn to hide away those feelings, bury them until they become caustic and threaten an internal — and ultimately external — explosion. Some learn to control the feelings, only letting them out in the safety of relationships with healthy, loving others. Some wallow in feelings, overwhelmed and confused by the power of these feelings.

But feelings don’t just go away when we don’t want to deal with them, or because we think they’re bad. They get bigger and more chaotic when we ignore them, like Gremlins in water.

Some of us are compelled to put those feelings into music, art, words, photographs, dance, sculpture — where other, less-feeling-aware people can see them and marvel at our talent. Art teaches us to see the human spirit and art lovers bask in its beauty and ability to make us feel.

To make us feel.

Tell me again feelings are bad?

Shouldn’t we be celebrating our body’s ability to reveal the world to us? Shouldn’t we be teaching our children, instead of hiding feelings in shame, to understand what the feelings are telling us? Joy, wonder, frustration,– anger! Anger tells us something is wrong, yet we are told to quell that anger and be calm.

And certainly not to talk about it. Oh heavens no.

In denying the feeling, we’re denying the right to explore life on our own terms and in our own observation of the world. Feelings are clues to help us understand the experience of being alive. We ignore and squash and deny them to our peril.

When we recognize the feelings, when we take the time to know ourselves and listen to what our feelings are telling us, we have the opportunity to be really alive, to live honestly. This isn’t to say we must revel impulsively in every feeling that crops up, but to become aware, to take time to analyze what’s going on so we understand and can make informed decisions.

This process has, for me, improved my relationships. When I understand the feelings that occur when I interact with the world, I am more considerate of other people, more aware of how my behavior changes, and how I affect other people. I’m more aware, too, of the variability of the feelings of people around me, and want to ensure that people I work and live with feel comfortable and safe with me. Increasing my awareness of myself has sent ripples out into my little world, and I am happier because of it.

Our systems are designed to take in this input, process it, and use it to guide our path. When we refuse to process it, it piles up and gets unmanageable. But we have tools: meditation or prayer, exercise, yoga, playing or listening to music, producing art, writing, sitting quietly and watching the sun rise or set.

My tools, the activities I use for what we call “self-care”, are gardening, being in nature, singing, and writing. I spend some time every week doing all of these. Tim has other tools, including playing the guitar. Each of us has different tools to help us quiet the mind, to get us into a place of understanding feelings.

We celebrate artists for what they remind us about ourselves, but we can also investigate our own impulses and instincts, dig down to find out how *we* see the world, and share our own unique perspective on this experience.

We are feelings machines, built to take in and process all that life has to offer. It’s a beautiful kaleidoscope.

Where’s Christie?

A couple of friends of mine are at the Billy Joel concert at Wrigley Field tonight. One of them posted an update saying they happened to be sitting behind the dumbest audience member in the place, someone who tried to join in the revelry by lighting up her phone’s flashlight and holding the device above her head, like people used to do with cigarette lighters.

Only this genius held the device backward, and the flashlight shone right into the eyes of my friend and her husband.

It reminded me that weird/stupid/rude audience members have been on my mind lately. Now that I’m going to a lot of events, I am encountering audiences more, and the experience isn’t always pleasant.

Some of them are wonderful, to be sure. Like the woman who sat next to me in a hot theatre and started fanning herself, sending a cooling breeze my way. I leaned over and thanked her for doing “God’s work”, and she started a conversation (as Portlanders do, which is straight-up awesome), and the next thing you know, we were comparing childhoods in Catholic school and horrible nuns and being a mother. I don’t remember her name, but we sure had a great time laughing our asses off before the concert began.

But others aren’t so great.

I seem to have a penchant for being seated directly behind the drunkest fan in the joint, or the loudest, or the most enthusiastic. At the United Center, I was behind the drunk fan who stood and yelled at the officials every five minutes. We were on the 300 level, so the chance that the officials would hear and obey the fan’s wishes were slender. Seated next to me was the second-drunkest fan who wanted to chat. All. Night. Long. Dude, I know it’s a hockey game and not a library, but seriously…I came here for the guys on the ice, not you.

At a chamber concert, I was seated behind a tall woman with huge dangly earrings. No big deal, until the music started and she started bobbing her head to the beat. It was a fast piece. Those earrings could have sliced her skin, they were bouncing around so much. I tried to shift positions so I could see around her, but she had some kind of ESP about my sight-lines, and kept moving right in front of me, earrings flapping away. She didn’t miss a single beat of the entire performance. By the end, I wanted to yank the earrings off her head.

At the Bruce Cockburn concert, we were seated near some lovely people who surprised us with drinks before the show began. So sweet. And then we talked and became friendly and everything was wonderful. And then the guy sitting in front of us was clearly trying to learn Bruce’s guitar solos by copying his hand movements in the air. Every solo. Maybe I’m too distractable, but I couldn’t stop looking at him. I wanted to see if he succeeded. It’s like watching somebody play a video game; you have no stake in the outcome, but you watch anyway, just to see if they can win.

At a jazz concert, the woman sitting to my right was familiar with the performer’s work, and very enthusiastically applauded and cheered every song. But at the final song, when the performer brought out his “finale” fireworks, she just went ape-shit.

Now, I’m familiar with the jazz idiom and its fans. I know jazz is a conversation, it’s interactive, it’s a function on some levels of the energy brought forth from the crowd. I get it. Some commentary isn’t just expected, it’s encouraged. I understand. And I accept that–to a point.

This woman was narrating each phrase with “oh WOW” or “Unbelievable” or “Incredible.” Not softly, either. No, loud and clear, so that everyone around her knew how impressed she was. My favorite was “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” What an odd phrase. Someone, please, give her a chewy caramel, a Now and Then, a Laffy Taffy to get me through the rest of the set.

But the one that started it all was, in fact, a Billy Joel concert so many years ago. It was 1986, his Bridge tour, and my college roommate and I went to the Checkerdome in St. Louis to see him play. It was my first “real” concert, and I was excited to be in a big city on my own watching my favorite popular musician in this huge venue. It was really a great concert.

Except for the guy sitting directly in front of me.

Now, I don’t know if he felt he had to drink to tolerate the music, because he clearly wasn’t into it, but he was SOUSED. And again, we’re in the upper seats, not close enough for him to make anyone on stage pay attention, but he had a lot to say. At the time, Billy was married to Christie Brinkley, and Drunk Guy spent most of the concert standing on his unsteady feet and shouting “WHERE’S CHRISTIE?” at the top of his lungs. Over and over, “Where’s Christie?” as any answer would satisfy him. He just wanted to see the gorgeous model, not the troll piano player. Why did he pay good money for tickets to see the troll? Who knows.

He must have been really, really drunk. And all of these people, on some level, were just enjoying themselves. I get it. Maybe they were fulfilling a bucket-list wish and seeing a chamber concert for the first (and only) time. I don’t know. In the moment, I try to remind myself that everyone is just trying to have a good time, and people show happiness in lots of different ways. It’s just happiness, I tell myself. They’re happy and they want to show it.

I wish there were some way to divine when I’m buying my tickets where the “happiest” audience member would be seated. I’ll just buy my tickets strategically, and seat myself in the quiet section. Wherever that is.

Taking Flight

To take flight.

It’s the goal of many of our endeavors. To master a skill or talent or job so that when we do it, we soar, effortless and powerful, self-sufficient, peerless.

Good musicians achieve this occasionally. Great ones do it regularly. Michael Jordan did it, and Wayne Gretzky. Swimmer Maritza McClendon just did it. Artists and chefs and scientists, authors and carpenters. Dancers fly. We can actually see it. Have you ever watched Misty Copeland?

It’s why we watch professional performances, why we marvel over their magical “play” and wonder how they did that. But their play (a term we use for musicians and athletes, but not for others) is a result of years of work, dedication, practice, concentration, study, experimentation, mistakes, re-dedication, competition with themselves — ourselves — to push, to leap, to attempt repeatedly to take off and stay aloft.

To Daedalus. Without the “flying too close to the sun” part.

It’s enough sometimes to get an inch off the ground. I’ve done it once or twice in the Brahms Ballade and the Khatchaturian Toccata. In writing, occasionally. I saw it last weekend at the Community Music Center Anniversary Recital, during the faculty performance. It’s stunning to see people you encounter every day transforming into a collective effort pushing skyward, the music creating an updraft, the chamber orchestra following. Like the house from “Up” affixed to a million balloons. The musicians stood, seemingly earthbound, connected to one another in tempo and rhythmic pulses and eye contact, but if you weren’t watching, if you took your gaze from them for a second, you would be sure they had taken off and were dancing far above, beckoning. Come with us, leave your gravity and fly, you can do it too!

And so, after watching in wonder, many of us head back to the practice room. To the desk, the lab, the palette, the workshop, the top of the key, back to our repetition and promise to the research and failed attempts, to the possibility of lifting off even an inch at a time. For the chance someday to not be earthbound. The feeling of liftoff, the tickle in the stomach, the butterflies so akin to falling in love or off a cliff, into danger, is the joy in life, the “ah-ha” moment, energy of danger and excitement and realization of our haunting dream. The elusive sense that we have touched that magic that skitters out of sight, around the corner, in our periphery.

And maybe that’s the point of Peter Pan. Not just retaining childhood innocence, but the belief in ourselves. Belief that if we never forget our magic, we can truly fly.


Maybe not like Peter and the Lost Boys, but in our way, in the manner we were designed for. I will never fly like Misty Copeland, but I can fly as I am; with words, or in E Major, or with my voice.

But I can’t stop trying. For those of us who keep falling in the attempt, we can’t stop trying. Because deep down, I know it’s possible. I won’t give up the attempt, even when I keep falling. And I see this is true for my scientist friends, and artists and actors, my musician friends and authors. For those of us who just can’t stop pursuing this crazy idea, even when it doesn’t look like we’re getting very far. We do it for one reason and one reason only.

For the persistent belief that, just for a moment, we can fly.

Faire son Calimero

I lied.

Months ago, when my husband was in Europe with his male family members, I lied about being okay with it.

Maybe I didn’t come out and say I was okay with it, but I tried to give the impression that I was okay with it.

And of course, now that the trip is over, I’m okay with it. Because what can I do about it now? Nothing. But the fact of the injustice of him getting to go and me not still sticks in my craw.

Maybe I need to rethink what it means to “be okay” with it.

He brought me some beautiful gifts. Pearl and sapphire earrings from the Louvre and a pashmina in hues of blue, which he knew I’d love. And I do. When my son went to Paris years ago with a high school group, he brought me a scarf in blue too, which I also love. I wore it this morning.
Pearls and sapphires

I treasure the Paris swag that’s been selected for me so lovingly. I love knowing that somewhere on the Pont des Arts, there is a photo of Tim and me at our wedding, a picture affixed to a lock. The lock has probably been removed now, as the city has had to cut down the weight the bridges were supporting. But for a number of years, it was there. A part of me has been in Paris.

But *I* have never been there. I have pieces of Paris that I can touch, jewelry talismans that connect me to the city.
Tour d'eiffel from my friend who visited Paris I have a memory chock full of study of the city from French class in high school and college, the map of the city we had to learn for tests, the arrondissements whose names evoke images of cobbled streets and revolution, of fin du siecle philosophers and writers lounging in cafes, so fed up with the world they can’t fake it anymore.

Now, suddenly, I long to go there. Whereas before, I could convincingly say I didn’t care one way or the other, somehow the fact that my husband has been without me, and numerous friends have gone in the last few months, and I’ve been treated to a parade of photos about all of their adventures, I am awash in longing for the city of light. I’m tired of hearing about it, of looking at it through glass, of never being able to taste or smell or feel the air. I get lost in thoughts of wandering the glossy streets washed by rain, smelling fresh bread and feeling adrift, as I am sure I will, in the unrequited energy. I’m stuck with recordings of Jacques Brel and Nina Simone, French curling sadly around their melodies. Flimsy approximations of being there.

Like many of you, I have the itch to travel. Since I moved to Portland, my desire to escape my life has dissipated, but I still want to see the world, all of it that I can manage, and Paris has risen to the top of my pile of wishes. The frequent reminders of what waits there for me have rushed into my consciousness and created a nagging ache that nothing will quell.


It’s a shame that it would be so inappropriate to make a crowd-funding account just so I can go to Paris. If I could, though, I’d definitely call it “GoFundMeg.” I’m hoarding pennies and dimes (and centimes, when I can rescue them from Tim’s Paris leftovers). And fantasizing about flying to Paris all by myself, hours upon hours available for me to just wander and absorb and reflect the shimmering city.

I’ll bring an empty suitcase for the books I’ll buy in that tiny little shop along the Seine. I’ll stuff sentimental souvenirs (which translates literally to “in place of going”, how fitting!) for the people I’ve left behind. I’ll buy Tim a beret he’ll never wear, and maybe a cravat, but certainly not earrings.

And I’ll only return when I’m good and ready, when I’ve learned to speak French confidently, without the fearful, stammering Midwest failings that pepper my current attempts. When I’ve finished with my tour of the countryside, when I’ve walked the Tuileries enough times to know the paths by heart.

When I have left part of myself in Paris, then I think this ache will subside.