Music Builds Cathedrals

Being a band director’s wife, there is no shortage of music in my life–thank goodness!

Last weekend in a span of less than 24 hours, I had two very different back-to-back musical experiences. On Saturday, we were given primo floor-level tickets to Symphony Center in Chicago, arguably one of the best and most beautiful performance spaces. We heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform music by Dmitri Shostakovich: loud, brash, passionate, and stirring. The way the brass played with such power that the sound pummeled the walls behind us then dissipated in swirls around our ears, had my trumpeter husband just as enthused as you might imagine someone cheering on their favorite team in the last moments of a neck-and-neck championship game.

Players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra warm up before performing Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony

Sunday, however, there were no tuxedos or stages or conductor podiums or glasses of wine poured at intermission; Sunday we went to an assisted living facility just a mile or so from home. Like many times before, Mr. Band Director invited his students to volunteer to come on a sunny Sunday to play a piece of music or two for the residents.

If anyone ever sighs, “Kids these days!” Mr. Band Director and I will argue that the kids we know, the band kids, have hearts of gold and will take our world into the future in excellent fashion, thank you very much. Carrying their instruments and music stands, a small army of students followed my husband to the second floor, where folks were already gathered, canes and walkers cast aside, brakes secured on wheelchairs. The room is used for programs, concerts, and parties, and the stained glass window nestled in the crux of the vaulted ceiling gives the insinuation of a chapel.

Teaching band at the local high school means my husband stands before large groups of kids for concert band, jazz band, pep band, even marching band. But the small groups that form–perhaps a couple flutists, or a group of woodwinds, maybe a brass quartet–is the stuff that produces some of the largest educational leaps in his students. Since Mr. Band Director grew up taking his music to nursing homes–unlikely cathedrals–he knows this is something worth doing.

The music begins. Smiles spread across faces. Eyes sparkle. Toes tap.

A group of students play an instrumental arrangement of “Havana,” by Camila Cabello. It’s unlikely any of the residents recognized the Top 40 hit, but no matter; the students sound good, and the tune has a catchy groove. More toes tap.

At the sound of an old favorite hymn–“Morning Has Broken”–a collective sigh ripples through the crowd.

Ahhhh, I remember this one!

Before long, the imaginary wall between audience and performer breaks down.

What kind of saxophone is that? a woman asks.

I used to play clarinet, says another woman to the students. My sister played flute.

A man in back doesn’t say a word. But there are tears in his eyes.

And who’s to say which is better, the concert hall or the retirement home? There are arguments for each. Symphony Center takes my breath away at the domed ceiling, bright lights, and the sheer lifelong, grueling commitment of all the musicians to study and hone their craft in order to join and remain in one of the finest Symphony Orchestras.

And yet.

The students didn’t come that Sunday for a grade or for a paycheck. They volunteered–said yes–to sharing their music. Some didn’t know what to expect, but they came anyway. Some had only one song prepared, but the one song came out sweet and strong and clear.

I think these young musicians already know that music can exist among tuxedos, stages, and box seats, but it doesn’t need to. This beautiful connective force called music belongs in unexpected places, among the hearing aids and orthopedic shoes, on a quiet street, in a homeless shelter. You can bring the music to the cathedral, or you can build the cathedral with the music.

Mr. Band Director knew it all along. Off to the side, he’s giddy with excitement, cheering on his team.

We bought a little camper

“Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy a camper,
which is kind of the same thing.”

Unknown

The fun started when we rented an RV for our family vacation this past summer: a 32-foot monstrosity with room enough for 8 to sleep. It was a bucket-list item that we wanted to try: load up the whole tribe, traverse the Midwest, and end up at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. For a week, we were all together with our four kids, ranging from age 12 to 23, plus our son’s girlfriend, seeing the sights, watching Old Faithful erupt, searching the scenery for bears, elk, and moose (our efforts were rewarded on all counts). There was so much laughter and singing. We hiked and climbed, oohed and aahed. Books and playlists were shared. There were so. many. chess games. It’s a trip we’ll remember for a long time.

We’ve done a lot of tent camping over the years. Taking babies and toddlers and young children to a campground is work, but it’s also magical. The outdoors is the perfect playground for kids. But as my husband likes to say, “As time goes on, the ground gets harder.” Our rented RV opened our eyes to the convenience of having a little place to come in from out of the rain, while not missing out on the campfires and simplicity of camping.

Here’s a photo of Mr. Band Director at the wheel of the rented RV. It’s a 32-foot monstrosity and he handled it like a pro!

Soon after returning from Yellowstone, we bought a camping trailer. Our little teardrop is more compact, more suited for weekend getaways. It sleeps 3.

Our “new-to-us” little camper!

Check out this photo of us on our maiden voyage. Next to us is our friend’s car. She slept in a specially fitted tent for her Prius, called a Habitent. It’s pretty awesome. It transformed her little car into a wilderness getaway. Plus, she added twinkly lights which gets my full approval.

So, I stand by the fact that the happiest times of my life are spent in small spaces: my small house (a.k.a. the Cozy Cottage); a college dorm room; cabins in Michigan; bedtime stories in my kids’ treehouse. We don’t need a lot of space to feel happy and peaceful: in fact, it’s my experience is that the smaller the space, the more expansive the joy.

I’m looking forward to big adventures in the beautiful world in our little house on wheels!

Worst Case Scenarios

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My hidden superpower is coming up with worst case scenarios. For any given situation, I’m pretty adept at imagining the most catastrophic outcome. Thousands of times a day in my mind’s eye, I see myself tripping, or having something dropped on me; getting into a car accident; being mugged; ending up with a black eye or broken limb; being publicly humiliated. (Funny, but the time I actually did fall on my face, I wasn’t thinking about a worst cast scenario at all–I was just walking my dog.)

This morning, my son, who is headed to college in a few weeks, needed to go to the campus to get a correction made on some paperwork. It required him to bring in his social security card and his drivers license. We agreed on a wake-up time, I checked how traffic would look that time of morning, and we went to sleep. Even in sleep, my mind took over and provided me with a horrifying alternative outcome:

My Dream:

We wake up to realize we overslept. Then we see that it’s snowing. My car won’t start, so we just barely catch a rickety bus out of town. The bus driver, running behind schedule, speeds up to make up for time, and the bus nearly tips over going around a curve in the slushy snow. Finally, we trudge our way to the college admissions office only to discover my son forgot his social security card at home. We catch the rickety/scary bus back home, retrieve the SS card, and just as we’re about to leave, our dog escapes. Wait–actually it’s two dogs, one I’ve ever seen before. (Have I forgotten that we’re petsitting?) Now it’s raining. We have to round up the two wet dogs and clean them up. Once that’s done, we remember our original mission: the paperwork! This time, thankfully, my car starts. Just as the sun is setting, we get to the admissions office and successfully finish our errand. *whew*

Reality:

  • We wake up. On time.
  • The sun is out. My son plays some Beatles’ tunes and we sing in the car.
  • The woman working at the admissions desk is friendly, warm, and helpful.
  • My son borrows a pen to fill out a form.
  • We get the paperwork corrected.
  • Done by 9:30 a.m.

The scenarios in my head rarely turn out to be anything like reality. I don’t know why my brain does that. I’m having a delightfully non-eventful day today. I’ve hung out some laundry to dry in the sun, I made a nice lunch with my daughter, and now I’m writing in my favorite spot with a cold drink beside me. I’m going to take a break from worst case scenarios for a little while–at least, as long as I’m awake. I hope you do the same.

xoxo,
Carol

Beginning, Middle, and End

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Life is one big love story with hundreds of little love stories within it.

Ram Charan

I wasn’t intending on telling a story as I rode with Sarah into the city on a Monday night. I was just going to lend moral support to our friend, Kim, a storyteller. Earlier in the day, Kim asked me, “Are you going to tell a story?” and I said “Absolutely not!” without hesitating. Later, Sarah told me, “I have a story. Do you want to do one, too?”

This time I hesitated and said, “Maybe.”

What are you supposed to do when you’re out on a Monday night in the spring in your favorite city with two fearless women who don’t seem to be concerned about baring their souls to a roomful of strangers?

I folded under the peer pressure and put my name on the sign-up sheet.

The storytelling event, an open mic, is a popular long-running series in Chicago. The stories are unrehearsed. Anyone can walk in, sign up, and be called up to the front where there’s just a microphone. There are rules: The story can be no longer than 7 minutes, and the audience is expected to offer up unbridled enthusiasm. I mean, each storyteller approached and retreated from the microphone among thunderous applause from a supportive audience. It was a safe space. Phones were off, eyes were up, ears were open. We were all going to be vulnerable. Together.

I felt the earth shift during that evening of storytelling. I heard stories of love, loss, and redemption. Of breaking rules. Of making up new rules. Feeling alone. Overcoming.

Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Since that night, I’m starting to consider my quiet life as a series of my own stories. I hadn’t really thought of it quite that way before. But when your life is a story unfolding, it makes you want to try new things, experience things out of your comfort zone. Because who knows what might happen? Everything could go right, and that will become a sweet story.

Or everything could go wrong. That would make a compelling story. All of it is good.

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Band Wife

March 2019 – visiting Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs with our 174 “kids.”

Spring Break involved a bus ride spanning four states with 174 teenagers and about a dozen adults. We traveled to the beautiful Rocky Mountains in Colorado, arguably one of the most stunning spots in our country. Two years ago I did this on a trip to Disney World. Four years ago I was on a bus to Memphis.

I’m a Band Wife. My husband, Mr. Band Director, is a musician and a teacher, and his passion is showing young people how to make music a part of their everyday life. Mr. Director wakes up early and is excited to get to a before-school jazz rehearsal at the high school where he’s taught for 13 years. He leads his band during the day. After school, there are sectionals, auditions, lessons. In the evenings, there are sometimes performances, rehearsals, marching band during football season, pep band during basketball season. After an event, Mr. Director can’t leave until the last student is picked up. Weekends, there’s the occasional call: “Mr. Band Director, I forgot my instrument at school. Can you help me get it?”

I only tell you this so that you understand that for Mr. Director, this isn’t a 9-5 job. This is a calling. A lifestyle, in fact. When Mr. Director isn’t in the classroom, he is reading articles about more effective teaching methods, reaching out to other musicians to exchange ideas. At our dinner table, we sometimes get a music lesson, or tips on how to practice better to achieve mastery on an instrument.

Being a Band Wife isn’t a calling, but it is a lifestyle. Band wives know the literature. They understand the different sections of the band. They’re sitting on the sidelines at the football game and basketball game, cheering for the band (and the team, too!). They’re in the auditorium. They’re armed with lawn chair and mosquito spray in the back of the van for all the summer concerts outside.

So why do I spend spring break riding 18 hours on a coach bus, thankful for my neck pillow, crushing a bag filled with snacks between my ankles to keep it upright as we rumble along the highway?

Because it’s Band Tour, silly.

Those 174 kids are like our extended family. They shape the world our family lives in. Based on these 174, the world is in great hands. These are thoughtful kids who are kind to one another, who look out for each other, and make great music together. Even better, they aren’t shy about sharing their music with the rest of the world. Some of them will go on and do music as a career–performers, educators, songwriters, arrangers– and others will use music as a stress reliever or a side hustle outside of their “day jobs.” But they will always have music in their lives. My husband makes it his life’s work.

I get to watch my husband do what he loves. When a student is hurting, he cries with them. When a student makes a sudden connection with music, it can feed his soul for days. As the Band Wife, I have the best seat in the house.

Pie is our Family Crest

My sister made me this Michigan Blueberry pie … with our Great-Aunt Anna’s piecrust recipe, of course.

The story is legend in my family: My oldest son, Clark, was a teenager when I entered the kitchen and found him, mid-bite, eating a piece of the pie I had just finished making. The realization came over me slowly as I took in the scene: his fork slid slowly out of his mouth while he looked over and locked eyes with mine. Although his eyes remained fixed sideways on me, his body remained forward, leaning over the pie plate where his left arm was positioned like a protective sentinel against like-minded key lime enthusiasts. Looking down, I saw that this wasn’t his first bite.

“I accidentally ate half the pie, Mom.”

Actually, it sounded more like, “I akthidentally athe half thuh pie, Mom.” (His mouth was still full, after all.)

He didn’t necessarily mean it apologetically; he stated this as mere fact, offered up as a logical explanation for the scene before me.

It remains a question in our family to this day: Can one eat half a pie, accidentally?

If I had to choose a family crest–symbols to represent our family’s interest and priorities–there would be music notes. Probably books or a pen. And most definitely pie.

When I got married, my sister gave me a handful of recipe cards written in her confident handwriting. She’d married more than a decade earlier, so I trusted her to vet all the best recipes. Among them was “Tanta Anna’s No-Roll Pie Crust.” It remains today to be the only pie crust I’ve ever made. I may never venture into the world of pie crusts shaped with wooden rolling pins. Tanta Anna (my great-aunt), and her hand-shaped pie crusts have sustained me and my family for decades, long after she’s left this earth.

Birthday pies have replaced birthday cakes in our house. When I went on a no-sugar diet for several weeks, I just switched over to making pie crusts for quiche. With my very hungry husband and four hungry children, there have been countless pies I’ve baked that I never got a crumb of. These days, with two teenage boys plus a tween with bottomless stomachs, I abide by a two-pie rule. If you’re gonna make one, you might as well make a second so everyone can have some.

Tanta Anna’s pie crust recipe is still in my recipe box, on the same card hand-written by my sister. The card is stained and warped with years of use. Now, it rarely needs to come out: I’ve memorized the recipe. It’s become part of my DNA. Making a pie crust is a repetitive, meditative motion that has become ingrained in my mom muscle memory. Crimping the edge of the dough is like rocking a baby, or grabbing a child’s hand before crossing the street.

I can’t be mad if my kid “accidentally” eats half of a pie I baked. It’s all part of the circle of life. It’s a badge of honor, a return hug. It’s the wordless equivalent of saying, “Thanks, Mom.”

I mean, “Thankth, Mom.”

Oh, hello, 2019.

At the turn of the calendar each January, do you choose a word of the year?

I do.

For 2017, I chose “Fierce.” That was the year I tried to get my mojo back as my own person, not just “Mom” or “Wife.”

2018 was “Ritual.” It was the year I chose to establish new habits like exercise and making more time to connect with my spouse.

But 2019? I just couldn’t come up with the right word. Until it smacked me in the face, quite literally.

While walking the dog on a Thursday evening, I took a spill. I fell right on my face. I tripped on the sidewalk, and down I went. Pretty, right?

I’m lucky. I know that now. I got great help from my daughter, a kind neighbor, my caring husband, skillful emergency room personnel. The next day, an oral surgeon did what I can only classify as a miracle when he muscled my front teeth back into alignment.

Above me on the MRI table at the hospital, one ceiling tile was decorated with a shiny laminated poster of an impossibly blue sky, fluffy white clouds, and lush green palm leaves. This could almost feel like vacation, I thought wryly to myself, if not for the bleeding and the throbbing pain.

I contemplated the word “spill” as I lay there, not moving. I like the sound of the word, the way it cuts through the air like a knife. It takes on different meanings. It’s short and to the point.

spill
 verb
\ˈspil \spilled\ˈspild,  ˈspilt \ also spilt\ˈspilt \; spilling
Definition of spill 
1: to cause or allow especially accidentally or unintentionally to fall, flow, or run out so as to be lost or wasted
2a: to cause (blood) to be lost by wounding b.archaic KILLDESTROY
3: to let out DIVULGEspill a secret

I’m claiming the word SPILL for myself for 2019. Or rather, it claimed me. I’m going to let it remind me that I got knocked down along the way, but I got back up.

I’m going to spill my guts through my writing.

Also, I’m going to use spill as a metaphor for gratitude. As in, my cup spills over. I have more than I need or deserve. A pesky little fall? A cut lip and scratched face? A bruised ego? It’s nothing compared to what some have had to face. Maybe this is a clue that I need to enter the new year with a stiff upper lip, with my arms swinging.

So hello, 2019. Let’s do this.