Thursday, December 25, 2014

In the Front Row at "An American Christmas"

So already, my husband Scott and I have been going to the Boston Camerata's annual Christmas concerts for years. But last Saturday night was the first time we got to sit in the front row.

We were already very excited about Saturday evening: "An American Christmas"* has always been our favorite program because almost all of the music is sung in English, making it just that much easier for us as English-speaking listeners to immerse ourselves in the interplay of music and narrative characteristic of Camerata programs.

Interior of Old Ship in Late December
Just the night before, Scott and I, as members of an ensemble called Crossroads that reassembles in the late fall of each year, had performed at the annual Winter Solstice Poetry Circle at Old Ship Church in Hingham. So the joys and challenges of being the only singer on a voice part were fresh on my mind. When you're an amateur singer, musical multi-tasking--thinking about that upcoming musical passage that you finally learned; connecting with your fellow singers to do something deliberate and musical together; and reaching out to the audience who've come to be moved, entertained, or both--is no small challenge. As a Crossroads member, I often find myself hungering for those moments of a cappella automatic pilot that my college close-harmony singing group** had when singing songs that we'd performed at least a hundred times.

The Camerata This Christmas, But Not Last Saturday
But groups like the Boston Camerata*** don't sing and play together week in and week out during the year. To read the biographies of the singers and instrumentalists is to understand how their diverse musical specialties and interests, varied musical commitments, and different home bases make the group like a garden that blooms luxuriously and differently in different seasons and different years, always simultaneously and artfully evoking its previous incarnations while incorporating beautiful, provocative changes.

I mention this because from our front row seats, Scott and I were treated to "an apprenticeship of observation," as Steve Seidel, the director of the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Arts in Education Program, might have called it. We had an up-close-and-personal experience of this group as professional music-makers using everything they knew separately and collectively about singing and performing to inform their inspired collective exertion. 

But that wasn't the most important benefit of our proximity to the music and music-makers: the real benefit  was our intensified experience of the spirit of the Camerata's music-making--something we've felt and cherished even when we've attended performances and sat in the last row of the hall. Scott, who'd loved the idea of front row seats just because he wanted to add to his enjoyment of the singing and the program, remarked later, "We got to hear the singers make the music, not the room make the music." Scott often describes the Camerata singers as "excellent, confident but not showy." And we could discern the shape of particular vocal lines when the singers sang in small groups and as a whole ensemble--which meant pieces we thought we knew pretty well kept handing us musical surprises.


As first-row sitters, we couldn't have been more involved in the program. So when it came time for the audience to sing, we gave it all we had. And that mattered. As Camerata Artistic Director and singer Anne Azéma said at the beginning of the evening, it was important not only that the Camerata sing to us, but that we sing to them, and with them. Music--in general, and this music in particular--belonged to us all, and we were all entitled to the experience of making it. In American music, she explained, the high is the low, and low is the high. Classifications embraced by critics and historians don't hold. As audience members, we were not being directed to venerate the old and the high as a beautiful remnant; rather, we were being invited to enjoy and appreciate its humble and still healthy roots, and its continued ability to inspire communities to embrace it, and sometimes even to reinvent it. Ultimately, communities, not scholars and reviewers, determine what animates our hearts and spirits.

My introduction to the Boston Camerata came when I was in my early twenties. A required college English literature survey course initially aroused my interest in the medieval; a production of the York Mystery Plays performed on a stage pitched on York's Roman ruins confirmed it, and made it downright enthusiastic. As a student in the Brown M.A.T. program, I pursued my interest through a graduate-level course devoted entirely to the Mystery Plays--and a seemingly endless clearance sale in the Brown University Bookstore's music department that regularly featured early music LPs priced between one and three dollars. So when I saw an advertisement for the Camerata's A Medieval Christmas program--I'm actually listening to the CD right now--I bought my ticket and went.

My first live Camerata experience was a musical and spiritual homecoming. The small band of musicians conveyed their eagerness to share the wonderful old music about which they were deeply knowledgeable and passionate so that we would appreciate it and love it. The opening strains of the Christian holiday program reached out to include me in a way that I, a Jew whose college choral experience had given me the ability to recite from memory the Catholic Mass in Latin, had not expected. I can still remember that moment: "Wait a minute? Isn't that Hebrew I'm hearing?"****

Even though I'd experienced modern Jewish choral music--my college choir had performed Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" when I was a sophomore--that was the first time I'd seen my own cultural heritage as a source drawn upon in the development of Western music. For years, the Boston Camerata, especially with programs like The Sacred Bridge (which will be performed in late March in Cambridge and Portland, Maine) has been helping "cultural outsiders" (and "cultural insiders"!) understand the roles their cultures and musical traditions have played in the development of the dominant cultural/musical mainstream. Simultaneously, it's been breathing new life and new relevance into music frequently dismissed as arcane, precious, high brow, and rarefied--and of cultivating respect for and openness to music frequently dismissed as low brow, common, or folksy.  "An American Christmas" exemplifies these goals and traditions, drawing on diverse American traditions and regions to create a program sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes heart-soothing, always heart-opening--and always musically worthy.

This year's American program opened differently than it had in the past*****--this time, with a brass version of "Wayfaring Stranger" both sobering and soothing. The last time I'd heard that song, Maria McKee was singing it (on the Songcatcher soundtrack CD) as if her life depended on it, conveying both deep desperation and passionate certainty of deliverance from that desperation. So the Camerata performance began by establishing all of us in the hall as sojourners in a "world of woe" whose hope lay in a world beyond. Darkness and light have always shared the stage in "An American Christmas," but never had the program begun by linking that darkness to the harsh loneliness of so many "strangers" making their way in this vast, difficult country. Given the current divisions among so many Americans, and the profound feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement that accompany those divisions for so many Americans and aspiring Americans, it felt to me like just the right way to begin the evening's journey.

And that's what I've always loved about the Camerata: its willingness to fix what isn't artistically broken because some new idea, some new conviction, some new insight, some new enthusiasm, some new concept, some new context creates a reason to try something new--to reconsider an established program's overall architecture; to add or subtract from an established program's musical selections, re-envision new voicings and orchestrations, reach out to new musical collaborators; to present programs featuring beautiful yet seldom performed works, or works inspired by those works, guided by the belief that imagination and scholarship play crucial, complementary roles in the realization of such projects. Innovation and tradition make excellent partners when the goal is meaning for both the performers and the audience.******

Manuscript sources for Daniel leave much room for the imagination. Its stage directions are scant and the score preserves only the text and melodic pitches. Azéma’s version, based on her own meticulous transcriptions of the music from a facsimile of the original sources, is a purists’ take in one sense—a welcome departure from Gotham Early Music Scene’s use of modern instrumental colors—as it relies solely on the vocal lines to deliver the majority of the dramatic content.
But her edition is wonderfully unstuffy with the music sounding as fresh to the ear as any well-crafted new piece. The lines of chant flow together in one smooth tapestry and, dramatically, work to splendid effect. When the mystical writing appears on the wall in the palace of King Belshazzar, the men of the chorus chanted lines that moved independently of one other for an apt confusion of sound as well as sight.
- See more at: http://bostonclassicalreview.com/2014/11/boston-camerata-provides-enchanting-new-take-on-the-book-of-daniel/#sthash.Zxvdcgjt.dpuf
Manuscript sources for Daniel leave much room for the imagination. Its stage directions are scant and the score preserves only the text and melodic pitches. Azéma’s version, based on her own meticulous transcriptions of the music from a facsimile of the original sources, is a purists’ take in one sense—a welcome departure from Gotham Early Music Scene’s use of modern instrumental colors—as it relies solely on the vocal lines to deliver the majority of the dramatic content.
But her edition is wonderfully unstuffy with the music sounding as fresh to the ear as any well-crafted new piece. The lines of chant flow together in one smooth tapestry and, dramatically, work to splendid effect. When the mystical writing appears on the wall in the palace of King Belshazzar, the men of the chorus chanted lines that moved independently of one other for an apt confusion of sound as well as sight.
- See more at: http://bostonclassicalreview.com/2014/11/boston-camerata-provides-enchanting-new-take-on-the-book-of-daniel/#sthash.Zxvdcgjt.dpu
Since my first time hearing the Boston Camerata, I've felt certain of the group's appreciation and affection for their audiences, their trust in our capacities to engage fully with the nuanced musical programs they carefully and enthusiastically design and present, and their hopes that we'll be delighted, lifted up, and inspired by our experiences. Last Saturday night, I fulfilled their hopes and my own. Front row seats provide great vantage points from which to look forward and to look back. On the fifth night of Chanukah, I felt my kinship with the singers on the stage, my fellow audience members, and all the wayfaring strangers making their way through this "world of woe." And I trusted in that kinship to help all of us to make it through. What a great gift of the Boston Camerata's music and spirit!

* Screen shot of "An American Christmas" CD <http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51DKS7I9kSL._SY300_.jpg> 
** I was one of the original Radcliffe Pitches, and we're celebrating our 40th birthday this year. We can sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" under any circumstances!
*** Screen Shot of Boston Camerata from their Facebook page: <https://www.facebook.com/thebostoncamerata/photos/a.10150767982824048.462632.140537234047/10152995447854048/?type=1&theater>
**** You can hear Isaiah's prophecy as it was performed that night by using the link I've posted right here.
***** I think it was different--or maybe it was my own experiences and changed sensibilities that were making me more attentive to something I hadn't noticed before. 

****** I was out of the country in November when the Camerata performed its version of The Play of Daniel, but I know from people who saw it and reviews that I've read that it was "a purist's take in one sense" but also "wonderfully unstuffy with the music sounding as fresh to the air as any well-crafted new piece." (Keebaugh, Aaron. "Boston Camerata Provides Enchanting New Take on 'The Play of Daniel'" Boston Classical Review RSS. N.p., 22 Nov. 2014. Web. 24 Dec. 2014.) 
******* Screen shot of <http://icons.wunderground.com/data/wximagenew/j/Jay0Byrd/302.jpg>

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Crossing Lines and the Christmas Truce of 1914

So already, last weekend, the Hingham-based Unicorn Singers and the Broad Cove Chorale joined musical forces to perform a musical-dramatic program commemorating the Christmas Truce of 1914.* The historical event is completely stunning in its own right. But it feels particularly stunning and relevant to me at our current precarious national and global moment. Who can cross what lines today? Who will cross them? How do we determine our personal and national bottom lines--and how well do we really know what they are? How does our knowledge of those bottom lines--or lack thereof--affect our abilities to reach out and cross other lines, particularly those that separate us from "our enemies"?

As the concert program explained, Unicorn Singer Joan Gatturna "dip[ped] into her experience as librarian, researcher, and historic storyteller to create the narration" for "All is Calm, All is Bright."** Michael Theobald, a former Milton Academy administrator, rendered that narration, composed largely of soldiers' letters and reports from the time, with sensitivity to the writers' thoughts, feelings, and backgrounds. Margo Euler, musical director of both groups, selected and conducted pieces that cast her singers sometimes as soldiers in the trenches; sometimes as citizens watching and waiting on their particular home fronts; and--particularly through Daniel Moe's "Fall Softly, Snow," Morten Lauridsen's "Sure on This Shining Night," and Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Dona Nobis Pacem: Reconciliation"--sometimes as a Greek chorus acknowledging war's terrible expense and yearning for healing, redemption, even for the end of war itself. Unicorn bass Rich Jensen arranged music to connect the program's five sections that ranged across time and space to suggest lessons learned and lessons lost from this extraordinary event.

The Unicorn Singers Performing at the October Gala****
In fact, last weekend's performances of "All is Calm, All is Bright" were not the Unicorn Singers' and Broad Cove Chorale's first, though they were my first***: the positive response to the combined groups' performances of the program several years ago led to the decision to do the program again on the actual centennial of the Christmas Truce. In explaining to the assembled at each performance that their ticket money was supporting the Wellspring Multi-Service Center's Diane Edson Fund, Unicorn Singer Kathy Reardon emphasized that Wellspring and the Truce shared a respect for the common humanity of all people that transcended the real and perceived differences among them.

Kathy's comments were part of what compelled me to use the Christmas Truce as a springboard for thinking beyond the Truce. Kathy did not equate making a charitable donation with reaching out to forge a person-to-person connection with someone dealing with extremely difficult life circumstances. Still, her comments got me thinking about how and when people "reach across,"***** and when exactly their "reaching across" communicates the equality of another person's humanity and their own.

Listening to the Unicorn men sing as soldiers on both sides of the conflict on that distant Christmas Eve, I recalled Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, which I'm sure I taught no fewer than twenty times over the course of my teaching career.  Paul Bäumer, the book's main character and narrator, dies one month before the Armistice is signed. In the book's final chapter, reflecting on his alienation and loneliness--few of those with whom he fought and lived are still alive, Paul says,  
And men will not understand us--for the generation that grew up before us, though it has passed these years with us already had a home and a calling; now it will return to its old occupations, and the war will be forgotten--and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered;--the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin. 
But perhaps all this that I think is mere melancholy and dismay, which will fly away as the dust when I stand once again beneath the poplars and listen to the rustling of their leaves.******
On the novel's next page, Paul dies: "He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front." In the last scene of the 1930 movie version of the novel,  a sniper shoots Paul, portrayed by Lew Ayres, as he reaches for a butterfly that flits incongruously and enticingly above the desolate landscape.

I also thought about Remarque's novel last June when the French railway strike required my husband Scott and me to rent a car and drive across France from Paris to Strasbourg on Route A4.******* Less than an hour outside of Paris, we began seeing signs for World War I battlefield memorials and cemeteries. My first surprise was how far west the Western Front had been: I had not understood how quickly and how far the German forces had penetrated into France. 

My second surprise was the tranquility of the countryside through which we were driving.******** Not that I would have expected the land not to have healed and the world not to have embraced its peacetime ways. But the landscape was so pristeen and picturesque that it was hard to imagine that anything had transpired in the region other than the routine changing of the seasons and the agricultural processes associated with them. 

"Shell craters softened by nature, near Verdun."**********
We did not stop at the battlefield at Verdun, pictured here,********* but I'm not sure I would have assumed the contours of the land were the result of fallen shells had the photographer who took the shot at the left not expressly said so. All I could think was "all quiet, so quiet on the Western Front." Who did remember? Who would remember?

Thinking about the Christmas Truce itself, I found myself asking questions. No doubt historians and others might have some real answers to these questions, but I will still mention them.  How old were the men who stepped out of their trenches into No Man's Land on that winter night, hoping but not knowing that they would survive? My fantasy is that it took young men to take such a hopeful risk. What an amazing thing that these men, at least for a few hours, knew the enemy by face and name--as did many of the Greeks and Trojans in The Iliad and many Union and Confederate soldiers whose allegiances to state and family had dictated the side on which they fought.

Why were there no Christmas Truces in 1915, 1916, and 1917? Was the hope that war could conclude without massive casualties dead by 1915? Or did the higher-ups decide that demonstrations of common humanity had no place in wartime? Yesterday, Joan Gatturna informed me that there was talk at the upper levels of the military about disciplining the commanders of the soldiers who had made peace with their enemies for that one December night. However, the positive popular response to the event, reported by the press, led to the abandonment of that idea.

In addition, I found myself thinking ahead to what happened beyond 1918--another brutalizing, dehumanizing war of large scale. No truces in that war, even though the soldiers who fought in it probably had a clearer idea of what they were fighting for and against. No opportunities for face-to-face connection that wasn't linked to hand-to-hand combat, and even more effective technologies for killing large numbers of people at a greater distance, which allowed them to remain faceless and nameless from the perspective of their killers.

And so if anything, over time, we've generally increased the distance between ourselves and our adversaries--certainly in wartime, and perhaps even in peacetime. How many names and faces do we need to know in order to experience the humanity we share with those who intentionally or unintentionally are set against us, or against whom we set ourselves? Or can an abstract appreciation of our antagonists' humanity suffice to support the kind of "reaching across" needed for peace on earth based on justice for all? Social media makes it increasingly possible to speak to and about our antagonists. But when we speak from behind the semi-fabricated names and enigmatic images that we choose to represent us, we limit others' abilities to trust in our authenticity and good intentions.

Right now, around so many critical issues, the lines************ in America are drawn. Generalizations about any group are bound to misrepresent some members of the group and thus not to be perfectly, completely credible. But that reality is beside the point. There are generalizations, circumstances, situations, causes, effects, that are so entrenched and so predictable that we need to confront them, even if we can find people, places, times, and events that are exceptions to them.

So yes, there's anger and hurt on both sides, especially around the grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York. But that doesn't mean that from an institutional perspective, one side hasn't over time been frequently wronged, targeted, and/or disenfranchised as a result of the other group's exercise of its greater official and unofficial power. Those young men who walked into No Man's Land and shook hands with their enemies on that night in December 1914, though on opposite sides of the conflict, were probably equal in status and power to one another--and far less powerful than the men who, miles from where they stood, designed their movements and, to a great degree, orchestrated their fates.

Even so, those of us who belong to groups that have been victimized can't hide behind that history in every situation. As a Jewish member of the Unicorn Singers, I needed to get beyond my immediate reaction to "Deutschland Lied" ("Deutschland, Deutschland über alles") when the Unicorn men sang it. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that most Jews who lived--or whose parents lived--during World War II think immediately about Hitler, concentration camps, and the Final Solution when they hear that song. But in the context of our performance, it was a pre-Nazi era song sung by the German soldiers to cheer on their team during a pick-up soccer match with "the enemy."************ There are times that we have to cross lines that we draw instinctively inside of ourselves for understandable reasons.

We gave three performances of "All is Calm, All is Bright," and with each performance I grew sadder, more aware of how much war lay ahead of soldiers fighting in 1914, how many more young lives would be lost in the next years, and how, to a great extent, history would repeat itself in the same countries and beyond. Where did that wondrous Truce get anyone? I felt terribly lonely and discouraged. One of the last readings in the program was from a Scottish minister who wondered if the Truce might be interpreted as the work of the Divine on the night that, for his congregation, the son of God had been born. But all I could think about were all the crucifixes I had seen in fields and vineyards in the eastern parts of France through which we had driven. In most cases, the suffering Jesus had seemed so lonely and inconsolable to me. I had imagined him as carrying the suffering of the many townspeople whose sons had died in two wars.

Our musical dramatic program began and ended with "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." I hadn't known that the famous old carol was a musical setting of a poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had written to convey and then transcend his despair after his son was severely wounded in the Civil War and his wife had passed away in a terrible accident.************* There's so much anger and despair in America right now--but also a tremendous amount of energy looking to be channeled effectively. I am thinking a lot about how we might in this country reach across our differences and transcend, and maybe even transform, our anger and despair. Really doing so will involve a tremendous amount of authentic soul-searching; a willingness to be flexible, vulnerable, and surprised; and the courage to risk trusting others whose soul-searching, flexibility, and vulnerability may very much be works-in-progress. In my estimation, there are many people out there who have the skills and the will to foster that transformation. But I fear they won't be encouraged and appreciated.

I'm also thinking about the young people in our country************** who are standing up and speaking out, many for the first time, and who may not be burdened by the bitter hopelessness some of their elders have understandably developed over the years. Maybe the real message of the Christmas Truce is the hope of youth, especially when it supports the courage and activism of youth. If this is the case, I hope that we, their elders, are wise and brave enough ourselves to counsel, encourage, and comfort them wisely and hopefully.

As I was sitting in First Parish Church in Cohasset last Sunday during the latter half of our program, sometimes listening, sometimes singing, sometimes watching the late afternoon sunlight fade warmly, the final stanza of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" came to mind:
Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.
So many "ignorant armies" to think about. It's almost impossible to believe that an event like the Christmas Truce could happen. And what does it say about us that we choose to remember it not annually, but only at its major anniversary? Still, the Truce did happen, and that's what gives me hope. Hope that we might reach across lines, differences, and histories that divide us and do something new and something better than we have in the past. Hope that reconciliation that begins as a truce between two groups in conflict might grow into an enduring peace that respects, comforts, supports, and inspires all stakeholders.

* Screen shot of <http://www.todayifoundout.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Christmas-truce.jpg>.
**  Screen shot from <http://www.bcc-us.org/>.
*** I became a Unicorn Singer in September--and felt immediately welcome.I chose the Unicorns because I wanted to sing again and knew I could attend rehearsals on what used to be school nights; because I wanted to feel more connected to the South Shore; and because I felt excited by the different kinds of concerts--and thus the different kinds of singing--the Unicorns do annually. Since joining, I've relished the group's spirit: every request for volunteers is met with a quick, enthusiastic "yes" response, often by multiple individuals. I take pride in the fact that a percentage of the proceeds from our ticket sales often benefit others: our concerts of last weekend benefitted the Wellspring Multi-Service Center's Diane Edson Fund, and our Valentine's Day Broadway Review will support Horizons for the Homeless. We work hard to make good music, but we do more than that, too.
**** A Donald Burroughs photo; thanks, Donald! 
***** Screen shot of <http://www.evenimenteoradea.ro/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/maini-atingere-cautare-sursa-foto-galleryhip-punct-com.jpg> 
*(6) Quotations from pp. 139 and 140 of Remarque, Erich M. AQWF - Full Text. N.p.: Myteacherpages, n.d. Pdf. "Simpson" is the person who probably created the pdf file.
*(7) Screen shot of <http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/98257062.jpg> 
*(8) Screen shot of <http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/07/France,_Marne,_Auve,_Autoroute_de_l%27Est_%28A4%29.JPG/290px-France,_Marne,_Auve,_Autoroute_de_l%27Est_%28A4%29.JPG> 
*(9) Screen shot of <http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_EBq9covCU9o/Roy0VLG6YsI/AAAAAAAACIE/SATsz4hDdXc/s1280-h/YIMG_2411.JPG>
*(10) Quoted from <http://modestine2.blogspot.com/2007/07/verdun.html>. 
*(11) Screen shot of <http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2014/12/07/23D27FE600000578-0-image-a-25_1417934924261.jpg> 
*(12) Screen shot of <http://i.ytimg.com/vi/hriz6rcCT3Y/0.jpg>
*(13) "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" article on Wikipedia: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Heard_the_Bells_on_Christmas_Day> Downloaded on December 18, 2014
*(14) Screen shot of <http://cambridge.wickedlocal.com/article/20141201/NEWS/141209601>
*(15) Screen shot of <http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-forgotten-christmas-truce-of-1914-unlearned-lessons-which-could-have-prevented-a-century-of-war-1914-2014/5420256>

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Listening, Watching, and Waiting: A Retirement Update for Dark December

So already, it's been a while since I've posted in this blog. Interposed between the present hour and the time of my last post have been a trip to Singapore and Malaysia, and a number of delayed but hardly overwhelming obligations that needed my attention once I returned. I look forward to blogging about my Far East experiences once my thoughts about them are more fully formed. But my thoughts about retirement almost a full year into it are in a new, liberated place.

We're now in the double digits of December, and dusk comes early. Holiday greeting cards are starting arrive. Some offer good wishes and a current photograph of the family of well-wishers; others supplement good wishes with family news; still others convey spiritual and political convictions that augment or even replace the family update. While some of my friends and acquaintances are joyfully (if frantically) immersed in the rituals and obligations of the season, others are busy responding actively to difficult national news, mourning the deaths of loved ones, and/or navigating complex work and family situations that require immense reserves of energy and patience. Some are, miraculously, managing it all.

For some reason, in comparison to many of the people that I know, I'm feeling calm--uncharacteristically calm for me. Not detached, but calm. And expectant and hopeful. This new calm started to collect in me, despite my travel-related anxieties of late October and early November, when I began diligently following the advice my husband Scott gave me early in the fall*: to stop trying to figure out my retirement and instead, to get busy doing anything that I liked doing. There's plenty I like doing, but I needed permission to act with no other goal than satisfying my momentary sense of what might be pleasurable and meaningful.

Initially, I valued Scott's advice because it freed me to explore options and interests without the pressure of identifying a direction for the next phase of my life--and without feelings of guilt related to "wasting valuable time" on larks and whims. I quickly understood that Scott was advising me to trust in time, and also in emotion and intuition as the expressions of my essential self. However, only recently--actually, when I read the Galway Kinnell poem featured in the December 3 Writer's Almanac**--did I realize that Scott had also been encouraging me to trust more in the world, to partner with it by being open to its bountiful, variegated phenomena and experiences, with which I potentially might engage meaningfully and joyfully.

The poem's notion of trusting nothing but the hours themselves felt like sheer deliverance to me. The hours were the constant stuff, the dependable thing. As I felt myself leaning toward trusting the hours, the poem's imperative title resurrected the final lines of John Milton "On His Blindness" from the basement of my memory:

     Thousands at his bidding speed
     And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
     They also serve who only stand and waite.***

No need to speed. Waiting too is service. A kind of faithfulness to what we already know to have meaning and value. As Kinnell's second stanza reminds, "You're tired./ . . ./ But no one is tired enough." Kinnell delivers his injunction in the next line: "Only wait a little and listen." Which inherently suggests that there's something to be waited for and listened to. There's a world there, whether it's an inner or outer one.

Meanwhile, the outer world served up Singapore and Malaysia to be seen and listened to--each exquisitely memorable in its own way, each familiar and extraordinary for reasons I am still contemplating. And each captivating enough to transform of my expectations of late November, which I've always loved. And if expectations of late November can be changed, if new ways of loving November can develop, what other expectations and feelings might be forged and changed?

November is monsoon season in the Singapore and Malaysia; downpours punctuate the day's heat and humidity. The whoosh and clatter of those downpours--very dramatic--were, for me, peaceful and soothing. On the eve of Thanksgiving halfway around the world, I stood in Singapore's beautiful, lush botanical gardens (in the photo on the right) sheltered from one such downpour, watching and listening, only 24 hours after I'd been looking toward Thailand from a boat off the coast of Langkawi, an island off of northern Malaysia (see my view in the photo on the left). 

Kinnell doesn't say "Wait forever"; he says "Wait, for now." Alertness and attention are what he encourages, receptivity to and recognition of the moment--"the only time"--when each of us can "hear/ the flute of your whole existence, rehearsed by sorrows,/ play itself into total exhaustion." There's definitely sadness here that comes with loss and memory. But it's coupled with hope. I experience his language of "only time" as being about potential opportunity rather than missed opportunity. A certain type of exhaustion--complete, unfettered, cleansing depletion--is to be prized; there's a desirable, substantive emptiness to be found.

At my current retirement moment, I'm feeling alert to the stimuli and opportunities that I trust the world--its hours and spaces--will serve up. And I'm also feeling that my authentic responses to those stimuli and opportunities will yield, eventually, a coherent, or perhaps incoherent, kind of knowing and a set of associations to accompany it. Something real, worth knowing, and worth heeding.

And so I end this post with some recent artwork my cousin Annita Soble**** posted on her Facebook page as part of her Chanukah greeting.***** Yes that is a deer in the headlights--a somewhat ghostly, transparent deer that may not be associated to a particular person's stunned paralysis. But my attention is on the driver of the car, who's taking the time to stick his head out of the car window, probably to confirm that he's actually seeing what he thinks he's seeing. Oh, the curiosity and the wonder; he'll never forget this commute! Meanwhile, all the cars heading robotically in the other direction spew exhaust--perhaps even to the point of Kinnellian exhaustion. Are any of the drivers noticing the the menorah that burns bright and timeless in a window that looks out on the thoroughfare? I don't know. But I am. Here's to the bright and the timeless. May we watch for it, listen for it, see it, hear it, and experience the hope that goes with it, especially in this holiday season!
 
* I first wrote about Scott's retirement advice in my September 28 blog post.
** http://writersalmanac.org/page/9/
*** http://www.bartleby.com/101/318.html 
**** Check out more of Annita's art at <annitasoble.com>. 
*****  Another version of this drawing appears on the cover of Fifth Dimension, a publication of the Jewish Russian Learning Center.