Back in the Pit

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One benefit of aging is selective memory loss. Nearly thirty years ago I vowed I would never again play in the pit orchestra for a live stage musical show. I clearly remember that vow. My memory of why I made it is vague at best. Consequently, I’m back in the pit, playing for this year’s musical produced by the Okanogan Valley Orchestra and Chorus (OVOC).

The show is “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a breezy comedy with a jazzy score and sensational costumes, poking fun at 1920s show biz. The show that led to my long-ago, semi-forgotten vow was “The Music Man.” It was the first musical to be presented in our brand new, then state-of-the-art theater. We’d previously put on community musicals in other spaces but never had an actual pit for musicians. I was thrilled to descend the concrete stairs and settle into the snug space beneath the stage. Then it dawned on me. One of my favorite musicals of all time was unfolding overhead, and I would never get to see it. Ever since, I’ve relished my seat in the audience while sympathizing with musicians in the pit.

Musicians aren’t the only one who don’t see the show. The backstage crew is limited to occasional peeks at the action. They’re all volunteers who love theater so much, they’re willing to miss out.

Last fall, OVOC’s concert coordinator asked if I’d consider being rehearsal pianist for this year’s show. She added in a quiet voice—quieter than a stage whisper—“and maybe the pit orchestra, too.”  I agreed to play for rehearsals even though the music was beyond my technical ability. The rehearsal pianist plays all the orchestra parts, but since it’s only rehearsals, you don’t have to worry about clinkers. You just have to keep the beat.

Community theater is as much, if not more, about community than about theater. A bond develops among volunteers who find energy after their day jobs to devote evenings and weekends to rehearsing, bringing a script to life. In this case, hilariously alive. After months of watching the actors develop their characters and master complex choreography, I was too invested to back away. I wanted to go down to the pit.

That’s where I was opening night with a dozen or so fellow musicians who would play the notes I couldn’t find. House lights dimmed, audience settled in, curtains parted, a funny line delivered, a shy titter from the audience, more lines, heartier laughter, and  we were rolling. By  midway through Act One an ambitious tap dance that’d required extra rehearsals had the audience screaming and shouting—a bonus when that’s all the pay volunteer actors get.

I was reminded. It’s the audience that strikes the match that lights the fire of live theater. Even down in the pit, I didn’t need to see the show to feel the flame.

(If you’re in the neighborhood, you have three more opportunities to light that fire: May 11, 12, and 13.)

Bear tracks and yellow bells. Yup, it’s spring

I dragged my heavy, insulated, lace-up snow boots from the back of the closet where they’d been lingering ever since I returned home from Holden Village four years ago. I have to lace one of the boots in a wonky way because the Holden mice chewed off a few of the loops. I was ready to give the mice a chance to repeat their efforts on the other boot. Even as spring was popping out all over at home, I’d decided to revisit winter and the village, where two-and-half feet of softening snow still lay on the ground.

From 2011 to 2014 I was a staff member at Holden, a spiritual retreat center high in the mountains above Lake Chelan, on the Glacier Peak Wilderness boundary. (My occasional essays about that experience are here.) I returned home just before turning seventy, the gateway birthday to what a friend describes as “s-aging.”

If I’ve acquired any wisdom thus far in my seventies, it is this: don’t get too comfortable. The tempting path of least resistance is the path to immobility. Holden is no longer in my comfort zone, which is why I went. There’s not only the physical challenge of tromping through the snow. Solitary living gets to be too comfortable. I needed to spend a few days and nights sharing space—including bathrooms—with other folks.

It was the week after Easter and the beginning of “post-holey” season at the village. That has nothing to do with religion. As layers of snow begin to thaw, the unsuspecting pedestrian can break through the top crust, plunging one leg knee- or even hip-deep into the snow, creating a “post hole.” Retrieving one’s buried foot can be a challenge—some folks have been known to leave an entire boot behind. Every step along the slushy paths is a journey with uncertain destination.

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A still-sleepy bear leaves a meandering track

One afternoon I happily donned snowshoes to join the village naturalist on a short hike. Despite the thick cover of snow, the naturalist pointed out signs of spring emerging all around—including a meandering set of bear tracks that crossed our trail. I imagined a bear just waking from hibernation, still groggy, like me in the morning on my uncertain way to that first cup of coffee.

My visit to the village was just long enough to challenge but not destroy me. Departure day happened to coincide with my thirty-ninth wedding anniversary. Down at the lake, where snow had melted into mud, I had a couple hours to wait for the boat. Still wearing snow boots, I lumbered up a portion of the Domke Lake Trail, thinking about my late husband. John liked to give me my favorite—yellow roses—on our anniversaries. He didn’t fail me. At a turn in the trail I spotted a “yellow bell,” one of the earliest blooming wildflowers in sagebrush country. Another turn and a carpet of the dainty blooms spread before me. What’s a little discomfort when the heart is full?

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A yellow bell–on of the first blooms of spring

Promising The Future

One week in February brought news of two deaths and one birth. At my age that’s about par. I’m fast approaching an ominous passage in life: more friends deceased than alive. Both friends who’d died, closing out good lives, were similar in age to me—in their seventies. I’d known them at different times and not seen either for quite some time. Yet knowing I’d never see them again on this sphere left a sad emptiness. A birth does not fill that void but represents the joyous reminder of continuity, one more step forward in the saga of humanity.

Lilja Gene was born February 9, a seven-pound, four-ounce promise for the future. Prior to her birth, her family held a traditional baby shower. Yet her mother, Ashley, was looking for something a little deeper as she prepared for her first child. She gathered a circle of women, some of whom traveled a distance, for a “blessingway” ceremony. Not only was I blessed to be included, I was the oldest.

Based on Navajo tradition, the “blessingway” is gaining popularity among mothers-to-be. In this instance the living room setting was casual, the intent sacred. We prayed, read poems,  sang, shed happy tears, and laughed. The women painted an intricate design in henna on Ashley’s rounded belly. Lilja tried to disrupt the artistry with an occasional kick. We each brought three symbolic beads—one for baby, mother, and family. They were strung into a birthing necklace for Ashley to wear during labor.  We looped our wrists together with yarn, making bracelets that we wore through the rest of the pregnancy.

Then ancient tradition melded seamlessly with 21st century technology. Niko, Lilja’s dad, texted us all when Ashley’s water broke. “Cut those bracelets!” he typed. Cutting the yarn symbolized a release of blessings for mother and baby. Those prayers of blessing traveled across the miles through the mysterious space of the Spirit. They mingled with texts of encouragement traveling from our smart phones through cyberspace. After many long hours came the joyous text announcing Lilja’s arrival, followed almost daily by photos.

New parents these days are bucking a trend. In 2016 the national fertility rate dropped to its lowest point since record keeping began in 1909. Women are having babies at half the rate of the fecund 1950s. Academics and researchers offer all kinds of theories about this. I have one, too. Parenthood is a calling. People no longer reproduce in order to have enough helping hands around the farm. Couples decide to get pregnant because they feel called to give the world one more unique individual. They are not daunted by the problems my generation is leaving.

As I was writing this on March 5, my computer dinged—a text message with photo of just-born, great-grandson Lucas Cole. Even with 7.6 billion people on earth, there’s room for more. We need new ideas to uphold our ancient values. Isn’t that why newborn babies look so old and so wise?

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Lilja Gene, just a few days old and ready

Bullying

IMG_1935The chance combination of seeing a particular movie and reading a particular book stirred sorrowful memories of bullying in my childhood. Sorrowful because I was not bullied; I was among the bullies.

The movie is “Wonder,” something of a feel-good tear-jerker based on the novel by R. J Palacio. The book is Sherman Alexie’s memoir, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” The two are not related but separately shine a light on the human proclivity for bullying.

In the movie, a ten-year-old boy born with severe facial deformity attends school for the first time after years of protective home-schooling. He is mercilessly bullied by his classmates. The story follows a conventional arc. The boy, initially crushed by bullying, uses his wits to ultimately win affection and esteem. Even though the joyous ending was a little too pat, I teared up.

Bullying is only one aspect of Alexie’s stark childhood. His vivid telling of events compelled me to set the book aside at times, simply to regain my breath. You might assume he’d been an American Indian kid bullied by whites. Just the opposite. It was an Indian kid in a reservation school who organized the torment. Alexie finally escaped to an off-reservation school, where he gained esteem among his white classmates. Yet even now, as a successful writer and film maker, Alexie tells how his grade school bully continues to show up in his life. 

Me? I’m remembering Michael. Even for a fifth grader, he was small. Now I realize he’d probably been under-nourished all his life. He had ear-to-ear freckles, bad teeth, and squinty eyes beneath floppy red hair that begged cutting. Worst of all, he smelled—both his body and clothes, the ill-kempt pants and shirt that he wore day after day. Everyone knew everyone in our small-town Minnesota school. We’d been classmates since kindergarten. Michael suddenly appeared in fifth grade. If anyone knew his family or where he lived, they weren’t letting on.

We considered Michael so disgusting, we avoided being near him. If anyone accidentally bumped into him or touched his hand while passing papers, they had the “Michael touch.” We couldn’t wash it off; we could excise it only by passing it on to another classmate. Michael-touch tag became an all-consuming activity on the playground at recess.

For all his social deficits, Michael was shrewd. When he realized his power to make classmates—especially us girls—shriek and run, he gleefully joined the frenzy, spreading his “touch.” Unlike the “Wonder” boy of the film, Michael never won our affection. I’m left wondering if there were any winners in that game—only losers.

I don’t know what happened to Michael. He wasn’t there for sixth grade. He may have survived a hard childhood using his wits. As for me, I’d like to do the fifth grade over again. Or maybe I have been, ever since.

With the Jerk of a Knee

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Shirley Hills School in Mound, Minnesota, was brand new when I attended as a second through fourth grader in the 1950s.

Whenever a school funding proposal appears on the ballot, many voters react in knee-jerk fashion. I’m among them. Some of the knee-jerkers would never consider voting for any tax, schools or not. They look for reasons to oppose. Others, including me, can’t imagine NOT voting to fund schools.

It’s all about gratitude. For thirteen significant years of my life, people who for the most part didn’t know me paid taxes so I could get an education. I’m grateful. Throughout those thirteen years a cadre of public school teachers devoted themselves to my growth and betterment. I didn’t always appreciate their efforts at the time, but I’m indebted to them now: from the aptly named Miss Gardner, the kindergarten teacher who introduced me to the enchantment of learning, to Mr. Thornburg, the twelfth grade yearbook advisor who sparked the possibility in my mind that I could be a writer. I can still see the smile on his face when, years later, I ran into him in a restaurant and told him I was an Associated Press editor.

I’m grateful that all my teachers provided a legacy that today’s teachers can build upon. Teaching today is certainly more stressful. Sadly, educators must work much harder to gain community and parental support.

Five school districts in Okanogan County, where I live, are placing funding issues before voters Feb. 13. Washington state has been wrangling for years over how to fund education. Now the state has a new formula, which means operating levies in some districts may be reduced. Less means more, thanks to state matching funds. My district—Omak—stands to lose $7 million from the state if the levy fails.

Omak is also asking voters to approve bonds to build a new middle school. The school will be vitally needed by the time our burgeoning enrollment of kindergarten through second-graders reaches that level.

I was in the vanguard of the baby boomer generation. Lucky for me, voters in the 1950s recognized the need for more schools. Instead of being squeezed into antiquated buildings, I attended mostly new schools from second grade on. Even then, I recognized the difference it made.

Last week I went to an informational meeting about our proposed middle school. I didn’t need to be convinced. I showed up to support the volunteers and school leaders who’ve worked for years to develop a practical plan for addressing future needs. I was heartened when a gentleman spoke eloquently about his gratitude to Omak schools for giving him skills that, he said,  “I use every day.” I was disheartened when the same gentleman voiced skepticism over the likelihood of this bond issue passing.

I agree with him that our method for funding schools is inadequate and sometimes unfair. But those kindergarten through second graders, who are being crowded into so-called portable classrooms even now, didn’t invent this system. Maybe, if we give them a good enough education, they could eventually find a way to fix it. I hope we don’t wait that long.

Reunion

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What fifty-five years can do to/for a person

A reunion can feel a lot like drowning. Supposedly, a drowning victim’s life flashes before them on the third, fatal time down. My life, or at least the past fifty-five years of it, was flashing before my eyes as I prepared to reunite with someone I’d not seen for that many years.

A junior/senior high school classmate emailed out of the blue a few months back. I’ve not attended high school reunions of late. I stayed in touch with only a handful of classmates, and she wasn’t among them. We hadn’t been close friends, but shared a few classes and played in the band. I didn’t consider myself on her level of the social strata that were implicitly delineated in that large, urban school. I saw her as popular, well-grounded, confident, coming from an affluent family, perfectly dressed and coiffed. Me? Less so. She was the classmate I most wanted to be like and be liked by. I’m sure she’d be surprised—or maybe even amused— to know that, then and now.

I responded to her email, and we ultimately made a date to have lunch on my next trip to Tacoma. That’s when I began mulling the past fifty-five years and wondering how I’d ever describe them to her. How to avoid a boring monologue of “and then I . . . and then I . . . and then I”? Besides, what I most wanted was to hear about her life. It would be, I guessed, a story of success after success. And it was.

Her story started exactly as I expected. As she described it, after college and sorority life she had her china and silver as planned, her three children as planned, her husband with secure, professional career—as planned. Then it all blew up. I won’t provide details because it’s her story, not mine. She didn’t tell it in the sequence I laid out, but started with the hard stuff, as if to lay her cards on the table. As if to say, “There’ll be no secrets; nothing will be held back.”

It turns out she and I have walked a parallel path these fifty-five years, living lives that pulled us every which way other than the direction we’d planned. That included our lunch: the restaurant where we’d agreed to meet was closed. We found another, really nicer, restaurant on Tacoma’s waterfront—a metaphor for what happens when plans don’t work out. We lingered for hours over lunch, telling not so much the details of our lives’ events. It was more about lessons learned, wisdom acquired. It was a sharing free of hubris, filled with the joy of discovery. We both had learned that when life interrupts your plans, take it as a gift and run with it. That’s success.

Given our mutual age of seventy-three, we can’t afford to wait another fifty-five years for our next reunion. I hope we won’t. She is a woman I want to be like, and be liked by.

Just Ducky

fullsizeoutput_1d1aThe river in front of my house is now a duck pond. Various sections of the river are frozen bank- to-bank, but here free water flows and water fowl float. It’s a busy sight/site with ducks and geese paddling upstream, cruising back down, taking off into the air with the frequency of planes at O’Hare, and landing again in small squadrons. The mallards come in for their landing with wings bowed, braking their speed just as they hit the water. Canada geese are less elegant, splashing onto the river’s runway in noisy, squawking turmoil.

My favorites at this time of year are the bufflehead (who I may be confusing with golden eye, or maybe we have both). Their radiant white caps make me think of novice nuns. They dip smoothly below the water’s surface, later to bob up again—never in the same place. My eyes scan the river, trying to predetermine where they’ll suddenly surface. I almost never win this game of bufflehead bluff.

At times some ducks leave the water to cluster on the edge of snow-covered ice—not exactly dry land. I have to wonder if they’re warmer, leaving the icy water and hunkering down in the wind-chilled air. I’ll bet they’re warmer in the water. What we don’t see is those webbed feet paddling hard like a cross-country skier following an uphill trail, warmed by the effort.

Occasionally—and suddenly—the pond empties of water fowl. Only small chunks of ice float desolately along the current, destined to join the glacial islands downriver. That’s when I know to look up and search for a bald eagle. Or perhaps some other raptor, an osprey for instance, is temporarily scattering the flocks. In only a few minutes, the ducks will return to resume their routine, up and down, forth and back. They organize themselves like an Esther Williams water ballet, sometimes in straight lines (although those are most often the geese, who have a penchant for the military), other times in complex choreography that unfolds like time lapse photos of flowers blooming.

There is other winter wildlife along the river bank—the hardy birds, of course, and an occasional river otter. The plucky quail scoot in nervous groups, puffed up to twice their miniscule weight to insulate themselves against the cold. I could see more if I would take time away from my ceaseless chores and distractions. Is that a resolve for the new year? Seems like a good one.

Fake News

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A scene from the Christmas village given to me by my late husband.

My career as a news reporter began at age five, when I informed my shocked kindergarten classmates that Santa Claus was not real. I had the scoop thanks to my older sister and brother. I don’t recall being dismayed when I learned about Santa—probably so eager to spread the news. I’m sure, however, that a number of parents would’ve cheerfully throttled me if I’d been within arm’s reach when their crestfallen children returned home from school that day.

Santa Claus, whether serious mythology or child’s fantasy, is pretty much universal. Our American version reportedly came from the Dutch “Sinterklaas.” The United Kingdom has Father Christmas, if you speak French it’s Pere Noel, there’s Hoteiosho from Japan, and of course, Saint Nicholas, a flesh-and-blood human of the fourth century. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra (located in modern-day Turkey), credited with numerous miracles including fantastic accounts of reviving people who’d been gruesomely murdered. The most credible event, say historians, and the one that connects him with Santa Claus, has to do with three young sisters whose father couldn’t afford dowries for their marriage. Prostitution was their only option. Legend has it that Nicholas anonymously tossed three bags of gold coins through their window, saving the young women from a life of degradation. One tradition has him tossing the coins down the chimney, thus we hang our stockings.

Our present-day image of Santa Claus is pretty much based on the poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” published in 1823, attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. We know it as “The Night Before Christmas.” Band and choral leader Fred Waring recorded an enchanting musical version of the poem in the 1950s. Despite my atheistic view of Santa Claus, as a young woman I about wore that record out. My favorite Christmas movie is “Miracle on 34th Street,” in which the U.S. Postal Service proves Santa is real.

In our town, Santa’s sleigh is not led by Rudolph’s red nose, but the flashing blue lights of a police car. Then comes a diesel-powered pickup pulling a brilliantly lighted sleigh. Amplified Christmas music draws us to our doors and windows to see Santa waving and handing candy canes to children who brave the cold to run out and greet him. One Christmas, after my late husband’s paralyzing stroke, Santa’s sleigh paused in front of our house. Santa himself (who in another life was a business owner and president of the Chamber of Commerce) climbed out of the sleigh and delivered a candy cane to my husband in his wheelchair. This year, when I spotted the blue lights flashing through my kitchen window, I rushed to open the door and wave. Somehow our town has kept this tradition alive for at least a couple generations.

As a reporter, I made my share of errors and consequently published corrections. But that story I told back in kindergarten? It was the only time I could be accused, rightfully, of delivering fake news.

Gone Fishing

fullsizeoutput_1d00Even though he is by his own admission a prominent scofflaw in our small town, I know very little about Robert. I know only that he plants himself fairly frequently midway across the Central Avenue bridge and stands there for hours with his ten-foot cross. I’m guessing that’s the height of the cross. For sure, it’s big.

That bridge is a good site for messaging. It connects the east, or Indian reservation side of town, with the west, or non-reservation side. The bridge spans the Okanogan River, which bisects our town and is the reservation boundary. Every once in a while, if people want to demonstrate or publicize something—like a protest march against the Dakota Pipeline some months ago—they’ll line up on the bridge with their signs. My dogs and I frequently walk across the bridge on our way to the East Side Park. We walk on the upriver side of the bridge to avoid crossing two lanes of traffic. Robert is on the downriver side of the bridge because, I suspect, that sidewalk is broader. People can more easily walk around him and his cross.

Because traffic usually is heavy and noisy, Robert and I merely wave to each other as the dogs and I pass by. One time, though, there were no vehicles on the bridge. In the silence, Robert called across to me: “You need to remember just two things!”

“Yes?” I responded.

“First, love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind,” he answered, “and second …”

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” I joined him in his shortened version of Jesus’ message. He smiled approvingly. The dogs and I kept walking.

fullsizeoutput_1d02Another time when traffic noise was missing, Robert called out: “I’m breaking the law, but no one seems to care.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

Grinning, he pointed to the sign posted above my head: NO FISHING FROM BRIDGE.

“Ah,” I said. “And you’re fishing for souls.” His smile admitted as much.

I don’t know if there’s a limit on how many souls a person is allowed to catch, with or without a license. But judging from the number of folks who drive by Robert with a friendly wave and horn toot, and judging from the number of teens I’ve seen give him a high-five as they walk past, and judging from the occasional passersby who I see stop to talk with him, Robert could be close to limiting out.

Beauty and the Beast Redux

Last month I saw a lavish production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast onstage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Last night I saw a high school production of the same play at the Omak Performing Arts Center. To compare the two would be to mix apples with oranges, or more likely, caviar with popcorn. And I do love popcorn.

I paid $75 for the Ashland performance, and I got my money’s worth. I paid $6 for the high school production, and I got a million times more than that in enjoyment. Professional actors are good, sometimes even great, and you expect them to be. Kids onstage are good, sometimes potentially great, and they’re more: they’re discovering themselves as they venture into a world larger than themselves. That is genuine drama and comedy of a kind you don’t get to see in professional theater.

After school performances like these I hear audience members marvel at the talent of the youngsters. Youthful talent never surprises me. It’s always going to be there. What isn’t always there is the necessary level of adult support that showcases young talent. That behind-the-scenes support and direction was apparent in last night’s performance. Skilled, knowledgeable adults provided the infrastructure that allowed young actors to shine. I’m gratified to live in a community that supports kids, whether they’re on the football field, gym floor, or theater stage. I’m especially grateful for the teachers and volunteers who, as skilled grown-ups, guide youngsters through formative, life-changing experiences.