Naming my blog: a (slight) retrospective

August 12, 2010 at 11:47 am | Posted in Long Blogs | 4 Comments
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I admit it, I do become obsessed when I’m searching for the perfect whatever.  Decades ago, when Dan and I were planning our wedding I got so wrapped up in the quest for the right dress, I still found myself gazing at silks and pale colors two and three years after the gown had been properly stored away.  Embarrassing, but true (and somehow freeing to say it out loud in public, after all these years – thanks for listening!)  So when I was trying to come up with a name for my blog, it was torture.  Here’s what I wrote while still in the throes of the final decision-making agony:   

So now it’s a name.  No, no more babies, no more dogs, unless you call this blog my newest child or pet.  But perhaps it would be helpful to review the last few name-selecting processes I have been through and survived to tell the tale.

  1. Chloe’s name.  When I was pregnant with Chloe, we chose no boy-names.  Holding on to the old fashioned mysteries, Dan and I had decided that even though the doctors and nurses and staff people could be informed of our baby’s gender through the miracles of science (I was 38, so they required amniocentesis) we wanted to wait until the moment all of our ancestors had had to wait for.  I’m not saying there were no male names that we liked.  There was Ian, Ewan, Matthew, Martin (except for what “Martin” means), and more that have been long forgotten, but none of them made it to the “possibles” list.  So we arrived at the hospital (with less than two hours to spare, but that’s another story) with four girl-names:   Emma, Laurel, Maureen, and Chloe.
  2. There was no question in my mind.  Chloe was my favorite, hands down, and I couldn’t understand why we would consider any other choice, but since I thought Dan wasn’t sure, it seemed the right thing to do.  And to clinch the list idea, we reached a milestone decision:  How could we really know who the baby was until he/she was born, and therefore, how could we pick a name ahead of time?  Even with my bias, it seemed obvious to us that you have to wait and see who you get. 

    So after she was cleaned off and we got to look at her, we had to walk through the process of ruling out three names.  One look told us she was not an Emma, and probably not a Maureen either.  (I had gone to nursery school with a Maureen, and it forever holds meaning for me as a sweet and adorable bright-eyed toddler.)  That left Laurel and Chloe.  The latter had come from the movie “The Big Chill”.  Chloe’s character is somewhat enigmatic, of a younger, seemingly more flakey and carefree generation from the rest of the cast, but in the end she turns the most troubled individual around and offers him a new chance for happiness and serenity.  I saw her as a caring and wise soul peppered with a sprightly cheer. 

    Was Dan really strongly considering “Laurel”?  I’ll never really know, but I do remember that I breathed a sigh of relief when he came around.  And our Chloe has turned out to be a caring and wise soul, without a doubt, with more than a touch of her own brand of chirpiness.  The irony is that years later Dan discovered that he has been saying his L-sound in the wrong part of his mouth all of his speaking life.  Instead of using the tip of his tongue he has always pulled the back of said tongue up toward his hard palate – a very difficult thing to do, but it’s how he interpreted it way back when.  So, poor thing, either of our top two would have proved a mouthful for him!  It’s okay, she’s worth it.

  3. Rachel’s name.  Another story, first of all because we knew she was a girl.  As it was our second time around, we decided we were no longer in need of a mystery and allowed the clinic to give us the complete report from the amnio.  Actually, she was so different in the womb, I had thought that perhaps she was a boy, and shared my thoughts with Dan and Chloe.  So we spent a few weeks of early pregnancy picturing the little quintessential family with one girl and one boy, and then got the news that our imagined portrait had a major flaw.  That was amazingly shocking!  We found ourselves reeling for awhile over that piece of news. 
  4. Soon Dan and I went to work collecting names again, and this time nothing took.  We spent months combing through name books from the library, my parents’ house, and our friends.  Nothing.  Or rather, each time something sounded good, there was a compelling argument against it.  We liked Gretchen, but as we watched Chloe learning how to write her name, we decided it was too many letters.  I liked Ruby, but Dan felt it was too old-fashioned.  Emma, Laurel and Maureen were not even considered.   

    A few months later, on the way to the hospital in the back of an ambulance after Rachel had been born on the living room floor (I’ll cover that one some other time) I suddenly remembered that we had no list of names, or perhaps more accurately, no names on our list.  Once Chloe was handed off to my parents and Dan caught up with me in the hospital room, we discussed the issue at hand.  Finally we came up with the name Margot.  My parents had been brought together by a folksinging Margot Mayo in New York, which added a nice dimension, and we liked the sound of the name.  During the night, as I lay there too overwhelmed to sleep, the name Rachel came to me.  We decided in the morning to give Chloe the choice. 

    Unbeknownst to us, Chloe had gone through her own process during the months prior, and had decided the best name for the new baby would be Diamond (taking off from Ruby – another gem?  I’ll never know.)  I can easily imagine the kind of appeal that name would hold for a four-year-old who is becoming a big sister.  What I cannot imagine is what went through her mind when Dan called her at my parents’ house and offered her our two options, which had to seem unquestionably inferior to her.  Luckily she was by nature quite agreeable, and since there was in her mind no contest between Margot (ugh) and Rachel (yay!) she came through.  Definitely a family process.

  5. The Folkaltones.  I think I still have all the sheets of scrap paper on which we brainstormed for just the right way to capture the essence of our trio.  We loved Tribe of Three, until we Googled it and found it was already taken.  It went from there, and every time we ran a search engine we found we were not as clever and unique as we had believed.  It was ego crushing, not to mention frustrating, and it was getting annoying that we had no name.  I honestly have no memory of how it happened, but we finally settled on the Trifolkals.  We liked the implication of 3-ness, the obvious folk reference, and we decided to capitalize on the “focal” aspect by giving our music the subtitle “visionary folk”.  Egos back, intact.
  6.  Until we had printed out business cards and had the graphics all ready for our debut CD and a friend of mine from Chicago mentioned that there was already a trio by that name.  I had even already even made the acquaintance of their songwriter/leader, Greg Trafidlo, at a conference.  That was close!  So we had to return to the drawing board.  We played around with all the ideas again and, happily, stumbled fairly quickly upon Folkaltones, which took.  We like it, but most people think we are the Folka (like polka) tones and that continues to drive us mildly nuts.  It’s better than a lawsuit (though Greg is way too nice to think of it.)

  7. Naming my song Adjustment, and then changing the name to Bouncing Back.  I wrote this song in 1979.  Dan and I had split up in September of that year, after two years of dating, and two months later the song pretty much wrote itself, the result of a wrenching time.  “Can I help it if I’m not bouncing back…” is how the song starts, and the refrain echoes it at the end of each verse.  So when it came time to give it a title, a poet friend of mine suggested I call it what it is.  To me it was about adjusting to being alone, separate from Dan, when I wanted to be with him.  Once I had performed it a few times, audience members started to request the song about bouncing back.  It isn’t about bouncing back, I would respond.  It’s about not bouncing back.  Aren’t you listening carefully to my lyrics?  (I didn’t say that last part out loud, it not being a good idea to criticize fans.)  It went on my first solo album as Adjustment and retained that title.
  8. Until three years ago, when I decided to re-release a compilation CD of songs from my first three records.  This was my chance to make any changes.  The pain having been eased during the past thirty years, it dawned on me that perhaps the song was about bouncing back after all.  Maybe I wrote it during the early phase, when progress on that front was slowest.  Maybe my fans had been right all that time.  So for the first time ever, I re-titled a song.

  9. Naming this blog.  I keep going back to the advice of my poet friend, call it what it is.  What is this blog about?  Based on past experience, I may not really know the answer to that question until around the year 2040, but in the meantime, I think it is about two main things.  One is walking through the process of letting go of my older daughter as she leaves for college.  The other is figuring out what on earth I am going to do with my own life now that most of it has revolved around being the mother of two daughters and I will only have one living here.  Those don’t sound like they are related, except that both of them involve me, and I do happen to be the one writing this blog.  And one is catapulting the necessity of figuring out the other (you can work out which is which for yourself.)
  10. The challenge is that it is difficult to encapsulate both of those in a four-word title, give or take a word.  I had first come up with “Notes from the nest” but it’s taken.  I contemplated how this nest is going to be half empty – “Half-empty nest”.  Already taken, but also it is seen as leaning toward the negative, which is not my desire.  So I brilliantly and optimistically went for “Half full nest” but it’s taken.  And I decided also that it kind of sounds more like the earlier years of child-raising (especially when you read the blogs at those sites.)

    So I have been brainstorming for days.  Partial list:  Face the Music, Cries at Weddings, So Far from the Nest, Musings from the Nest, Mom in Search of, Tune-up in the Nest, Mamatone, Take Your Vitamins, Whose Life Is It Anyway, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Love in the Translation, Tune-up for Mom, Losing my Marbles, Recomposing (maybe a little too close to “decomposing”), Lullabies for Mom, Apron strings and A-strings…

    Finally I stumbled upon Roots and Chords, which everyone in my house (at the time) liked.  I liked it too, but there was no sign from the universe to go ahead and grab it, except that it wasn’t already taken.  Up stepped my Great Doubting Mind:  If it isn’t already taken, maybe it’s not so good!  However, that kind of logic has a fatal flaw, which is that I will never ever get to post my site if I am seeking approval from an already existing title, SINCE I CAN’T HAVE THAT ONE.  Okay, breathe in, breathe out.  I finally just went to bed after that episode.  And this morning I jumped onto a new and different track:  Apron strings and metronomes.  Or Bach, Baez, and Bombeck.  I’m kind of liking that approach and have two hours in the car this afternoon to come up with more tries.

    Obviously, by the time you read this, the decision will have already been reached, since I will have chosen a title and posted my blog site.  OR you and I will be dead because waaaaaay too much time will be taken in making the decision.  As it is painful for me to imagine this being read at my funeral – or worse, used as my epitaph, I choose the first option.  I promise you will hear from me soon.

Back to August 12, 2010.  You can see where I ended up.  I think it turned out to be the best choice, just like all the others.

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Dorm news, the nature of grieving, and a lesson in exponents

August 7, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 8 Comments
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Yesterday, after several tense weeks, Chloe finally received the email announcing her freshman roommate and her dorm assignment.  Now she has one more tangible piece of the year ahead that she can place in the puzzle before her.  Only somewhat tangible, however.  She found her roommate on Facebook and sent a message along with a friend request.  The latter was granted, but as of eighteen hours later, there is no return message.  Okay, the girl is apparently at Disneyland right now, and was up late last night.  We assume she friended Chloe on her iPhone and went to bed.  As Chloe pointed out, it’s simultaneously fun and creepy to fb-stalk someone.  But we were happy to see that she plays violin and also likes the Beatles and Jason Mraz, so it can’t be bad!  We’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that Chloe will move closer to the top of her list after she leaves the Magic Kingdom.  And then they can talk about who will bring the mini-fridge and other domestic details.

For me the new degree of reality brings up a mass of tangled feelings and then the typical aftermath of thoughts, trying to sort it all out.  Last night Dan and I joined friends for dinner and Chloe stayed home and had friends over for dinner and a movie.  As we were seated in the Ethiopian restaurant, I had a sudden rush of awareness:  tonight we are here and Chloe is at home, but in a few weeks, when we return home from anywhere we go, she won’t be there.  After I rescued my stomach from the basement beneath my chair, I knew one thing for certain.  This is no different from any other kind of grieving.  There’s the over-the-top wallop of the loss itself, and then there’s the waves that hit you in any random moment, with no warning.  I haven’t even had the wallop yet.  These must be prelude-waves.

Before Chloe, I had a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage.  Dan and I were overcome with sorrow, and then, of course – what else can you do? – we began to carry on with our lives.  Two months after the miscarriage, I walked into the backstage dressing room of a concert hall and spontaneously burst into tears.  Until I set foot in the dressing room, it had not dawned on me that months beforehand, I had pictured myself doing that concert in a maternity dress.  Over the coming months, I came to understand that we walk through grief by mourning each micro-component of the whole.  Every moment, every face, every thread that is attached to what we lost has to be met and felt. 

It’s all around me.  Last week Dan and I went to see “The Kids Are All Right” which had received good reviews and didn’t look too heavy.  Little did we know that (and I don’t think it will ruin anything for any of you who have not seen it if I include this – but if you want to, you can skip this paragraph) the movie includes a main character who has recently graduated from high school and has only a few weeks left before she leaves for college.  The parting scene shows her arriving on campus, dumping her stuff in her dorm room, saying good-by to her family and watching them drive off without her.  Okay, was it really necessary for us to watch this right now? 

And a few nights later I was at a party where Chloe was to play background music with a friend.  I was chatting with another guest who is ahead of me by a few years.  As if to refresh my memory of the movie I already wished I hadn’t just seen, she described her own experience of driving her daughter across several states, helping her unload into her dorm room, and saying good-by.  “And then,” she continued, “I got into my car and began the drive home.  I must have sobbed for two solid hours!  And I was all alone.  Or wait – was my mother with me for that trip…?”  Oh great.  I hope I remember that Dan is driving home with me someday years from now, when I am telling my story to some fragile wisp, trembling before me.  Assuming we don’t have an accident, driving on the interstate while sobbing.  Perhaps we’ll stay on the side roads for the first part of the journey.

I know, I know, I know.  Yes, it’s hard.  Yes, it’s wonderful.  Yes, it’s necessary – and right.  And I have lots to do in the seventeen days between now and our departure.  And there is nothing to fix.  There is no one dying.  Heaven knows, I am well aware of the difference between my 80-year-old father passing away a year ago and my 18-year-old daughter embarking on the next chapter of her life’s adventures.  And I am not alone.  Dan and Rachel are moving through it in their own ways.  I guess it’s also true to say that our family foursome is moving through it as a whole as well. 

I remember that after Chloe was born, I figured out that adding a baby to a couple doesn’t just make three.  It’s closer to exponential because you have to add the dynamics of all the relationships.  So to begin with there were three relationships:  Dan and his relationship with himself, my relationship with him, and my relationship with myself.  Adding Chloe gave us four more – hers with herself, that between each of us with her, and the threesome.  Adding Rachel gave us a myriad more, because it wasn’t just Rachel herself and Rachel with each of us.  There were now “the girls”, “the kids”, “the grown-ups”, etc.  Even though Chloe is not a “member” of each of those relationships, it affects all of them.

Everyone tells me that our relationships with Chloe will continue, but they will change, and I do believe that.  It helps me to remember that our family has ridden the shockwaves of past transitions, and it has always been for the better.  So yes, this is uncomfortable, and each of us has an occasional moment of squirming, flailing and/or writhing, but we are in it together, even as we are each negotiating an individual set of bumps and turns.  I feel mighty fortunate to have such a strong set-up.  In this moment, bolstered by what has just come clearer to me, I know we’ll all be okay.  What is it they say – the only constant is change?

Insurance cards, faulty memories, and the muse

August 3, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 3 Comments
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The mystery arose late last week.  We were approaching the deadline to submit health forms to the medical clinic at Chloe’s college.  In addition, we were asked to photocopy her insurance card and then fax all three pages to them.  When I was Chloe’s age I used to love to fill out forms, but let us just say that she does not take after me in that respect.  Simply put, there was procrastination – and not just on her part.  I have to admit to having evolved to the point where I do not relish them anymore either.  And Dan was busy with other things.  Finally, two days before the deadline and hours before Chloe was to leave for the weekend, we hunkered down and with my guidance, she completed the task.  I went to my wallet to pull out her insurance card, and discovered it was not in its designated slot. 

Surprisingly, and with startling synchronicity, I had just gone through the same kind of sequence with Rachel earlier that same day, and with the same results.  Rachel had been invited to join a school friend and her family on a road trip to the west coast, and we thought it would make sense to send her with at least a photocopy of her insurance card.  As you have now guessed, when I went to my wallet said card was not there.

Hmmm.

So we backtracked.  When was the last time I had seen either card?  It was the week prior, when Rachel had gone with a different friend for a three-day outing (she has been quite the social butterfly and traveler this summer) and the friend’s mother had suggested she take the card with her, just in case.  So I emailed said mother (I’ll call her Ursula) and asked her if she could return the card.

Ursula’s response appeared a little later:  “I never had her insurance card.”  What?  Dan and I remembered the conversation clearly.  I emailed back, telling her as much.  (Nicely.)  Later she emailed back, admitting that maybe she needed to check her purse again, and promised to get back to us afterward.

In the meantime, I was tracing our steps through recent weeks to remember when we had last used Chloe’s card.  That was also no problem to recall.  Two days before she and Rachel flew to Florida for a dance competition, I finally took her to the doctor to check out the two-plus-year-old pain in the ball of her foot, which turned out to be a stress fracture.  (Another story, perhaps a future post.)  She was new to that doctor’s clinic, so we had had to give her card at the front desk to allow the receptionist to photocopy it for their files.  Had it been returned to me?  I was pretty sure I remembered putting it back in my wallet.

As I reviewed the sequence of those days, I asked Chloe, “We didn’t send the insurance cards to Orlando with you and Rachel, did we?”  She was sure we had not bothered, and I agreed.  I had no memory whatsoever of handing them to anyone – either Chloe or their friends’ parents – as we met up with their fellow travelers at the airport.  The trip was only for two days, and she hadn’t wanted to be responsible for carrying them.  Dan concurred.

Another email from Ursula appeared:  “I was thinking.  Maybe the card looks like my insurance card and I missed seeing it.  I’ll get back to you after I check again.”

A little perplexed, I called the clinic where Chloe’s foot was examined and explained the nature of my plight to the woman at the front desk.  She was exceedingly sweet and very helpful.  We spent ten minutes on the phone while she checked through the pile of abandoned insurance cards tucked away in a special corner of her drawer.  Apparently this is not an unusual occurrence.  Not finding it there, she continued to chat pleasantly with me as she combed every possible nook and cranny that might hold an unclaimed card.  And when she failed to uncover it she was truly apologetic.  I left my phone number with her just in case and said good-by to my new friend.

Ursula’s update appeared on the screen:  “I searched my purse and didn’t find it.  Sorry.” 

Okay.

Dan ordered a new set of cards from our insurance company and we decided to wait another two days to fax Chloe’s health forms, just in case the old card turned up.  By this time, my mind resembled the ball on the green and white table. 

On one side of the net:  Ping!  “Am I going nuts?…”

Other side:  Pong!  “What a weird coincidence that both cards are missing at the same time…”

Ping!  “I could swear I remember giving the card to Ursula…”

Pong!  “I can’t believe we lost two cards in two different places in the same week…”

Chloe left for the weekend.  Dan and I joined my mother for dinner in a noisy restaurant on the edge of town.  We were waiting for Rachel’s call from some hotel in Las Vegas.  Yes, my 13-year-old was spending the night in a resort casino hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Dan’s phone was on digital roam and Rachel was taking forever to call. By my admittedly long-distance reckoning, they should have arrived at the hotel hours ago.  As we ordered and then dined, the image of the crash on I-15 was beginning to sketch itself in my mind.  And of course, they don’t have Rachel’s health insurance card so they won’t know who they are treating in the emergency room.  Assuming they are willing to treat her seeing as she has no card.  I kept all this to myself so as not to worry Dan and my mother.  Finally Dan’s phone rang.

Dan cupped his hands over his cell phone and his other ear.  It was clearly not Rachel on the other end.  At the end of a short conversation he chuckled lightly.  “Okay, thanks for letting us know!”  Probably not the ER.

It turns out Chloe’s cousin was aimlessly sifting through the contents of Chloe’s wallet sometime between dinner and the Shakespeare play.  Hidden way in the back, stuffed safely in the midst of various gift cards from graduation two months ago, were the wayward health insurance cards.

(Rachel finally called us at home much later.  They had indeed arrived hours before, but went swimming in the hotel pool before calling.) 

What I find the most fascinating about this story is how none of us could piece together a complete memory of actually taking the insurance cards out of my wallet and handing them to Chloe who then stuffed them into hers.  Dan and I remembered the conversation with Ursula, but not the upshot.  And Ursula in turn began to doubt not only her memory but even the tangible hands-on search through her purse.   Chloe and Dan and I could remember discussing whether to send the cards with Chloe, but not one of us had even a vague recall of the actual decision.  And the receptionist at the medical center, who had no reason to remember the details of Chloe’s card – for all I know she wasn’t even working the day we came in – was totally open to the possibility that it was floating around there somewhere.  It happens.

Dan is currently reading Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan.  From the little he has told me about it, it is the perfect companion to this episode, examining what we do and do not remember, and how we tweak our actual memories to fit our view of the present.  I plan to read it when he is done, as I find the implications staggering.  What does this tell us about eyewitnesses in a court case?  Just a few weeks ago Chloe’s senior class did a production of “Twelve Angry Men” (it included women, of course, but I just don’t like the ring of “Twelve Angry Jurors” so I’m holding to the old, though gender-biased, title) and I wondered all the way through it, Would I be able to remember anything clearly enough to testify under oath?  I don’t think so.  Even as I am telling all of this to you I am very likely committing errors in the sequence, timing, and what people said, felt, and did.  The gist is only as true as I can make it.*

And in the context of music, how well do I remember what my teachers told me to practice?  How accurate is my understanding of their appraisals of my musicianship and skills?  How well do I hear myself play?  One of my teachers demonstrated for me that, while playing out of tune with terrible tone sounds – not surprisingly – terrible, playing out of tune with gorgeous tone sounds amazingly tolerable, even passing for, well, playing in tune.  I’m obviously not campaigning for inaccurate pitch, but there is a kernel here that is immensely helpful to my paralyzingly perfectionistic self, and it goes something like the following.

Can I make a bargain with myself to practice all the ingredients – fingerings, shifting, articulation, phrasing, vibrato, dynamics, expression, etc. – and then let go of the belief that I need to micro-manage the performance?  Can I apply the perfectionism selectively and use it “mostly/only” during practice sessions?  In other words, if I do my homework long, hard, and well enough during the practicing and rehearsing, can’t I trust the muse to sprinkle a little magic on the stage the night of the concert?  Assuming one is a good musician, how much of the performance is “fact” and how much is “illusion”?  Is it really all about a million tiny details, or is the music greater than the sum of all its parts?  I really do know the answer to that question.

I can now see that I always relied on the magic of the muse throughout the decades of my folk career, and she always proved herself to be reliable.  So apparently I have piled all the perfectionism into the arena of classical music.  Perhaps the learning curve that lies before me (or am I already ascending?) is to tear down the wall between those two worlds.  I wonder who built the wall in the first place.

*With two disclaimers.  Number one is that Chloe claims she did not procrastinate.  She needed my help and I was busy, which is totally true.  Number two is that after Dan read the above, he reminded me that we actually photocopied his insurance card and Rachel took that with her to the west coast.  Here’s what’s perfect about this one:  I have no memory of it!

More on tension

July 28, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Posted in Short Blogs | 2 Comments
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After posting yesterday’s blog, questions came to me.

  • How much tension is “necessary” for what I am trying to accomplish?  More to the point, am I adding tension?  If I have habitual tension in my shoulders, and I place my hands on the piano keys, it is likely I am holding myself differently than I would if I tended to move more freely.  When I was working with an Alexander Technique teacher, we spent one session exploring my piano playing.  It took many tries to play one phrase without engaging my neck, back, and jaw, and when I finally accomplished it, there was so much emotion released in that act of free movement, I almost started sobbing!
  • Do I hold any attitudes or beliefs that contribute to my tension?  Can I explore these? 
  • How can I “work on” not being tense?  What an ironic question!  It will not help me to approach this with my usual drive and determination, because that will add unnecessary tightness.  In the aforementioned AT session, I did not sit down to the piano until we had spent a good half hour getting into a lighter and more effortless place with my posture and breath.  I cannot will myself to relax – I have to walk down a patient and conscious path in that direction, every time.  And it is a different path each time, otherwise I am approaching it in a rote way, which I have found to be almost useless.
  • How can I approach this with my mantra of doing it imperfectly?  There are so many days that I have only a limited time to practice.  Is it more important to work on technique as often as possible, or to work on “practice readiness” by walking down my AT path first, which might cost me my practice time?  I don’t have an answer to this right now.
  • I understand that if I practice a piece with tension, I am practicing playing it tense, which is the result I will get.  I also know myself well enough to say that one of the most important things I am learning these days is how to say “This is good enough for now.”

For the present I am going to do my best to dwell in the paradox this last piece contains.  A friend once asked me if I could expand myself enough to hold two (or more) conflicting feelings at the same time.  I have just been given another opportunity to explore that frontier.

On tension

July 27, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 3 Comments
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I figured something out.  It took awhile, but they say it takes whatever it takes.  Last year I was taking a violin lesson from a very wonderful and insightful teacher while studying at a workshop at Oberlin Conservatory.  He was helping me with a section of a piece that put my hand into an uncomfortable stretch, and I commented that I couldn’t find a way to play that combination of notes without my hand being tense. 

He looked at me – he has a way of really looking at you – and said, somewhat off-handedly, “Tension is okay.”  I was dumbfounded.   We had just spent several days in technique class working on how to hold the baroque violin and baroque bow, exploring our breath as we made big counter-clockwise circles in the air with our right arms, allowing gravity to assist us with an organically heavier beat on the down-bows and the resulting inhale and lighter touch to our up-bow and pick-up notes.  The object, I had been led to believe, was to learn to use the structure of the bow and the inherent qualities of the gut strings to our advantage so that our playing would be graceful and flowing, free of the bad and undesirable T-word.  Tension is our enemy, isn’t it? 

I have spent a lifetime trying to let go of the tension in my body.  I wake up every morning with my jaw and tongue – not my teeth – clenched.  Since my childhood I have walked through my days bracing myself, my gut held tight as if I am about to be punched, bearing down from my head into my throat into my neck and shoulders and from there into my middle.  I was utterly unconscious of all of this until it began to cause pain in my early adult years and then gradually I woke up to these patterns.   The more aware I became, the more I worked to rid myself of them.  And with the help of several therapies and practices, I have released many layers of them over three decades.

As I tended to these habits, I held highest the goal of being entirely free of them.  Drawing from another habit, I saw the picture as black and white, categorizing as follows:  being tense (read “the way I do it”) is bad and wrong, and being relaxed (read “the opposite of how I do it”) is perfect and right.  Corollary:  I should be doing it the right way. 

As I sit here writing this, I am almost laughing, but not quite.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that what I said in the previous paragraph is sadly laughable, but I’m not much beyond a wry smile yet.  I still fall into that way of thinking countless times a day without noticing I have returned to familiar territory in the blink of an eye.  Here’s the paradox:  I am still trying to be perfect, even though I have identified perfectionism as one of my greatest faults.  I am even trying to be perfect at not being perfect.  I just slip right back into the echoes of the very thing I think I am overcoming!  At that I can laugh whole-guttedly.  It reminds me of a woman (someone I don’t know) I once heard talking about how very hard she was on herself.  “I need to be MUCH MORE GENTLE ON MYSELF!” she hammered out fiercely.  Those of us listening to her were torn between the humor and the pathos.

That moment from my violin lesson stayed with me, perplexing me for months.  Then recently one day I was explaining a fine point to one of my students.  “There is a difference,” I pointed out patiently (I have patience with my students, just not much with myself), “between tension and rigidity.  It’s not that we want to be limp!  A musician needs to play with strength and firmness, and that’s not about being relaxed, it’s about…”  And then I realized I was on the edge of the issue myself.  What is it about?

Some moments in our lives simply call for us to rise to something.  We work hard to climb a mountain, to learn something difficult, to execute an excruciatingly fine act with grace, precision, care, etc.  It’s just important that we do not stay there!  Nobody can live every moment to the intensity that those moments demand of us.  We all need to breathe out after we achieve them.  Astoundingly, we even need to breathe out while we are working the hardest, right in the thick of the act itself.  The challenge is to continue to focus while we are in motion and then let go of the physical tension and keep breathing and moving.

So I tried it the next time I was practicing violin.  Could I climb the peak of even the most dramatic and gripping phrases with strength and vitality – even with tension – and then release it and let myself back down?  It did not come easily, but it was thrilling to experience it to even a small degree.  I did my best to stay with it all the way through the phrase, ascending the notes as I breathed in and out, moving forward, not grabbing onto anything along the way, so that the momentum could lead all the way to the climax.  Then I experimented with the sensation of letting go – to some degree – of what it took to get there, while still maintaining the musicality of the diminishing line.  Wow!  I could only begin to integrate it all, and no doubt a bunch of other fine points went out the window in the process, but it was exhilarating!

It provided a new touchpoint for me.  In recent days, without consciously thinking about it, it suddenly dawns on me to seize the opportunity to release the effort that I habitually exert throughout my day.  For a few seconds, I am free from that pattern of bearing down.  I experience a lightness and sense of flow almost instantly.  It allows me to breathe more deeply, and then the breathing out brings an even greater release.  I am instantly more gentle with myself (I hope somewhere, somehow, that nameless woman can read this!) and even the black and white thinking vanishes.  I do not expect it to make a permanent departure, but for those moments it is inconsequential.  It misses the point.  This moment, whenever it happens, is utterly filled with life.  And with practice, I am hopeful that it will become easier to integrate it into my violin playing as well.

Thank you, Teacher.  And thank you to the Muse for helping me to understand a little more along the way.

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