Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas, Christmas Time is here...

Christmas is a tough time of year for a lot of people. When everyone is supposed to be "merry and bright" the cheery Christmas carols, happy people and bright lights can be a knife in the heart to people already struggling.

I hated Christmas for years. It was a tough time of year at our home, because Cutty Sark played a prominent role in my dad's Christmas celebrations...and mom and I spent many a Christmas in a state of suspended animation...waiting for SOMETHING to happen, and it usually did. I dreaded Christmas. In later years, I HATED Christmas. Christmas was also my father's favorite time of year so the irony was strong.

It wasn't until I became a parent that I forced myself to change my perspective, and to see it through the eyes of my child. I'm still stressed and rushed, but I'm taking the time to marvel at the beauty of the decorated Christmas tree, to appreciate the simple beauty of the Christmas lights, and to laugh in shared delight as my daughter discovers my favorite Christmas shows: the original Grinch, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph and Charlie Brown. We have watched them together over and over...because I already owned them. She hasn't developed an appreciation for Mr Bean yet...but she may later. My daughter was dancing with excitement yesterday when she came down in the morning and found parcels under the tree. She was getting concerned that it was barren. She called my mom to tell her, and it was the first thing that she told her daddy when he came home. There were parcels for everyone...but mainly for her!

I set myself up to be stressed. It's Christmas Eve, and I still have a ridiculous amount to do. Some of it is simply not going to get done. We have the food for the feast, we have family, we have presents. We have a job, we have a home, we have our health and we have our amazing child. Everything else is a bonus, and if the shortbreads don't get made this year, so be it. I still have to clean the house, but it won't be perfect. It will be okay. I've been hobbling on crutches for a week with a funky hip/pelvis that has locked and left me unable to stand. It gets better, and then it gets worse. It is what it is and I can only do what I can do. In the grand scheme of things, it really isn't that important if there is dust in the crevices. It certainly isn't important enough to cause me to spend Christmas Day in debilitating pain. If the family doesn't understand, the problem is theirs.

My best friend has just separated from her husband, and she is at the other end of the world from her family. She's working Christmas Day and then going to a friend's house. My cousins lost their mom earlier this year, and so did another of my friends. I sang at more than a dozen funerals this year for people facing their first Christmas without their loved one...or their second...or the 19th...there are moments that will always kick you in the heart and Christmas is one of them. Many people are facing job loss, uncertainty, serious illness, financial problems, cancer, sick parents, sick siblings, sick kids...Christmas will be anything but merry.

I learned the hard way that it is okay to feel fragile. It is okay to give yourself permission to be less than perfect. It's okay to be sad, it's okay to feel less than merry and bright. It's okay to cry, to acknowledge the loss and the sadness. It's when we don't do those things that we end up depressed or anxious.

I wish you all peace. I wish you good health, prosperity, quiet moments of happiness, simple things to bring you comfort and solace. I send you all a hug and tidings of comfort and joy. I wish you love.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Skidding into Christmas

I don't know how this happens every year. It's December 11, there are basically 2 weeks until Christmas, but you'd never know it by the look of my house.

I still need to:
  • Help daughter write letter to Ho Ho (AKA Santa)
  • Badger husband to dig Christmas tree out from under the stairs so that it can be unfolded, while keeping small child somewhere else so that she doesn't see the big honking parcel that is on TOP of the Christmas tree box under the stairs until Christmas morning.
  • Determine where the usual assortment of stuff in the living room is going to go so that the tree can be unfolded.
  • Deck the halls
  • Write and mail the Christmas cards
  • Bake the cookies. Apparently, Christmas will not come if the Melting Moments are not baked. Not sure I want that kind of responsibility although Christmas DID come the year I stopped making 3-freaking-days-to-make-handmade chocolate truffles and dipped cherries
  • Figure out the rest of Christmas dinner, other than the Turkey
  • Buy the freaking turkey and various and assorted food to go with it while justifying cost to husband. yes, we DO need the shrimp ring...
  • Bake rice bread to stuff the turkey with since my father in law is severe celiac
  • Take my mother shopping so that she can buy MY Christmas present
  • Spend most nights next week singing my heart out with the Grand Philharmonic Choir, praying to anyone who will listen that it won't be the last time.
  • Deck myself out in subdued, classic finery, and go with my husband on the one night I'm home next week to a dinner at the home of one of the senior executives of his company...and have dinner with senior executives...praying to God that I don't spill something, or say something that will kill his chances for permanency at the company. We are judged by our spouses...and I don't get out much. (Note to self-dig out Joy of Cooking and review cutlery placements...)
  • Clean the house
  • Make it to Christmas Day without dissolving into a sodden, sobbing mess of nerves...or drunk as a lord on wine because I have simply given up
I wonder what's involved in becoming an Orthodox Christian...that would give me a couple more weeks...and there's always Kwanzaa...

Ho Ho Ho

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thank you for the Music

We all have things that keep us grounded and centred, that cheer us, console us, comfort us, celebrate with us and mark the signposts of our lives. My mother in law, for example, can give you a geographic tour of all of the wonderful meals she has enjoyed throughout her life. She marks her travels by wonderful pieces of pie, succulent roast beef, tender chicken, cake and wonderful Yorkshire puddings. She can tell you what she ate and where she was. Her sister traveled extensively, and picked up little chotzkes along the way that reminded her of places that she had been. My father in law remembers the people he spoke to, and the photos he took. The signposts of my life are marked by music. I remember the songs that were playing during certain times of my life. Music is my solace, my centre; the tapestry of my life is woven with treble clefs and music staffs, melodies, lyrics and stanzas.

For the past 12 years, I have been singing with the Grand Philharmonic Choir in Kitchener, Ontario Canada. We are an "amateur" choir in the sense that we are not paid to be members; quite the opposite. It costs me more to be a part of the choir than it costs me to be a member of the Professional Writers' Association. We are not amateur in our repertoire, our performances or our concerts, however, and some of the brightest lights on the classical stage right now, Ben Heppner, Richard Margison, Measha Brueggergosman, Suzie Leblanc, Daniel Taylor, Michael Schade, and a slate of others, got their start singing with the Philharmonic. We sing in the Centre in the Square in Kitchener, which is considered one of the best accoustic halls in North America. And unless something happens, and quickly, our voices may be silenced, victims of the economic downturn, poor ticket sales and difficult times.

I did not know any classical music when I auditioned for the Phil. I knew the "Ave Maria"; every Catholic wedding singer worth her salt has that in her repertoire. I also knew the "Ave Verum" because our church choir sang it at the 75th anniversary of our church in Toronto. In fact, I sang the "Ave Verum" as my audition piece for the Phil, blithely unaware that it was a choral piece and not really appropriate for an audition. I made it in anyway. I don't read music well...and never did learn to read bass clef. I am a soprano; why would I need bass clef? I sing, and have always sung, by ear. If I hear it, I can sing it. I don't have formal training, but I can read enough piano to plunk out the notes...and I work hard to learn my part.

Singing with the Phil for the past 12 years has opened up new horizons for me. I had never heard any of the choral works that we perform on a regular basis. I have grown to love the Verdi "Requiem", the Dzorak "Stabat Mater", Handel's "Messiah", the Willan "Requiem" Bach's "St John Passion" and a host of others that I had never heard until I joined the choir. I don't love all the repertoire, of course, (and I'm convinced that Beethoven's mother in law must have been a soprano, and he didn't like her very well, as indicated by the Soprano line in the 9th Symphony, which becomes a schreifest of high A), but I marvel in the ability of someone to compose all the parts and the orchestration. I may not care for the product, but I respect and stand in awe of the ability that produced it. I didn't know how to sing properly until I joined the Phil. The leaders of my previous choirs would drop their jaws in wonder at the power and range of my voice now.

In the most challenging times of my life, music has been my solace, my blanket, and music would break the wall and open the floodgates when nothing else was able to break through the protective wall. It is the music that touches my heart, that is my gift when I sing at funerals and weddings, that is my grounding and my strength. Music can lift my mood, give me comfort and keep me going when all seems bleak. I can arrive at choir practice depressed, stressed and worried. I will leave lighter of heart and spirit after singing wonderful music for a couple of hours. Such is the magic that music works on me.

Producing choral music is quite different than singing solo. Anyone who has been a part of a choir knows that the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. It is much harder to sing chorally, when all voices must blend, levels must be equal, individual voices should not stand out and the sound should be even, uniform and true. When I sing solo, I have only myself to rely on, and if I mess up, no one but me and the accompanist will know, especially if I sing it wrong with conviction. When you sing chorally, if you miss an entry you throw off the dynamic of the whole piece, and the people who are also singing your part.

The Phil has been facing tough economic times, declining ticket sales and empty seats for a few years now, but the last couple of seasons have been dire. The choir, like so many other arts organizations, is now in danger of folding. A combination of high ticket prices, repertoire that has been a tough sell and a tough economic climate has taken its toll on the audience. In times of doom and gloom, people want to be entertained and as wonderful as some choral music is, it requires thought and concentration. People want to escape; they have enough to think about. People want to be transported to a happier place, to tap their toes and smile. As transforming as it is, the Verdi Requiem is not exactly a feel good piece.

Arts organizations have to embrace the new realities if they want to survive. The same old, same old is not going to work in the new reality. A lighter program of show tunes, Gilbert and Sullivan, light opera or something similar-"you've heard the tunes on Bugs come and hear them live"-would fill the hall and help bolster the choir. It would introduce a new audience to the music the choir produces, and make them more likely to come back for a more traditional concert. It might offend the sensibilities of the purists in the choir, but better offended than silent.

If the choir is to survive, then egos and sensibilities need to be set aside. If it is pandering to the masses to sing light, dare I say it, popular repertoire to a full house, then pander we should do. We don't need to do it every concert, or every year for that matter. Rogers and Hammerstein is not Mozart or Bach, clearly. But people seek out the familiar and the uplifting in troubled times, and show tunes and music from movies or broadway is more familar to more people. I was terrified when I went to my first live opera...until the opening strains were familiar from years of watching Bugs Bunny. I was not alone in my observation; a couple of my fellow balcony dwellers that night made the same observation. Breaking down the perception that classical music is stuffy takes work; it is work worth doing if the classical arts are to survive. Not even our current Prime Minister gets that.

I need music in my life. I need to make challenging, uplifting, wonderful choral music that feeds my soul, comforts my heart and transfixes and transforms me. Church music, while comforting, is not enough for me. I need to be a part of the grander choral scheme of things. I need Bach, Mozart, Estacio and yes, even Beethoven in my life.

It has been a challenging couple of years for me on a number of levels. We've had job loss, job uncertainty, health issues, financial worries and lost many loved ones. Music and the Philharmonic Choir have been my one constant, my one safe place in the midst of uncertainty, the one expense that I was unwilling to cut, even though it costs me dearly to be a part of the choir. It is the one thing that I do strictly for me to keep me going, to keep me grounded, to keep me sane, and to remind me of the person I am, rather than working mom, wife and mother. I need the Phil to survive.

Monday, December 1, 2008

When Realities Collide

It's always interesting when the past and the present collide. This has happened to me a few times recently, with interesting results.

A friend of mine just posted some pictures from high school on Facebook. We were quite good chums back in the day, and then drifted apart, only to reconnect last year through a mutual friend at a serendipitous moment in both of our lives. We picked up the strands of our previous friendship and have began to weave a new tapestry, very different from our adolescent one. The photo is telling for a number of reasons. First of all, The Kelly Garrett hair is a dead giveaway to the date-1979. I'm standing off to the side, smiling at the antics of something off camera, standing with arms crossed, with a group of people. Immediately to my right is a person who, at that point in high school, I had counted as a friend...a friend who not long after became my chief tormentor, whose emotional bullying caused me no end of grief, cost me friendships, and whose name, even today can send me to a very bleak time in my life when I ended up suicidal. Interestingly, she is the only one looking at the camera in the picture. Just seeing her picture again is enough to make my heart race...such is the legacy a bully can leave.

Recently, an old chum from university tracked me down on Facebook. He was a good friend all the way through school, and we would go to the pub or movies together. He is one of the good guys...kind, old fashioned and courteous. I remember sitting in his truck after a movie one night, telling him that "he was one of the good guys who renewed my faith in men." We'd lost touch after university when he moved to the Maritimes. I was thick as a post, clearly, because I always thought we were just chums, pals, buddies...and he would have liked something more than that but was too shy to act on it and I never realized it. I remember attending his Christmas party the year after he'd move to the East Coast, and one of the women asked when we were getting married. Before he could reply, I had said "oh, we're just friends..." and I now understand the profound silence that ensued. In retrospect, it was not the first time I missed the signals. According to him, the guys in the class, including him, thought I was "gorgeous". I have never, ever, not for a nanosecond, ever considered myself "gorgeous" or even pretty for that matter. My nose is too big, I'm too curved and dimply and I'm short. It boggles my mind when people tell me that, because I don't see what they do... This re-acquaintance has no reason to flatter me, and he was never the type to do that anyway. We're both old married folk now. I would concede "cute" in those days...I was told I looked like Lady Diana quite often back in the day (the hair helped) but gorgeous...nope. And these days? Fat, frumpy, gone to seed and tired-absolutely. Gorgeous? Not even with my new haircut and a good makeup day. The best I hope for these days is "good." as in...I clean up good...

Finally, awkward was the word of the day on the weekend. We attended the Christening of my friend's baby. This friend is my little sister I never had, and her parents and I sang in church choir when I was in high school, and I used to hold her older brother while her parents went to communion when he was an infant. Our lives have been intertwined for years, and my husband and I have been included in many of their family's celebrations, because her mother is a good friend as well. Which is where the awkward part comes in, because her cousin is a former boyfriend...who broke my heart into a million pieces.

Steve and I started out as friends. I had just ended a very emotionally draining relationship and wasn't interested in any kind of romance, date or anything else with the male species. Crazy cat lady was my goal at that point, because it had to be better than the emotional hell I'd just escaped. We would chat after church and gradually, friendship developed into something more. Our first date was on Canada Day, and we both laughed about having eyes only for each other that day, oblivious to the festivities. We shared the day with his cousins and aunt and uncle, who had been quietly encouraging the romance.

It was a rocky romance, and doomed from the start. We shared the same beliefs...but were worlds apart on interests and activities. I loved to dance, and at that point, I was a competitive ballroom dancer. I still danced with my ex-boyfriend at that point. Steve swore up, down and sideways that he was fine with me dancing with the ex. Of course, he swore up, down and sideways about many things that he was fine with...because it's what he thought I wanted to hear. I was his first girlfriend...and he was in his early 30s.

We had picked the ring, tentatively picked a wedding date, immediate families knew "unofficially", and we had planned to announce the news on Christmas Eve...and then he walked away a couple of weeks before Christmas. He said he wasn't ready for a relationship, he wasn't okay with my dancing with the ex, he didn't want kids...and a myriad of other things that he finally came clean about....things that he thought I'd wanted to hear. I remember vividly going out for New Years' Eve with him after he'd come clean and I was still reeling. He tried to put his arm around me and I pulled back. It was the beginning of the end, and after another couple of months of trying to patch things up, only to discover layer upon layer of deceit, falsehood and misinformation I finally pulled the plug on the shambles of the relationship...on Valentines Day. People believe that I broke off the relationship, and that's true to a point...but he walked away first. I pulled the plug on the salvage effort; he pulled the plug on the relationship by revealing that it had been built on lies. He continued to come to church after, and I can remember forcing myself to sit in my seat as rage consumed me when he strolled in a few months later wearing the sweater that I had knit him for Christmas the previous year...the year we were supposed to be announcing our engagement. It was all I could do to not run down the aisle and rip it off his body. How DARE he wear it now...the hurt was overwhelming.

I stayed friends with his aunt, and his cousins, and so we bump up against each other once in awhile. It's been 12 years...and it is still awkward. I've skipped family celebrations that I knew he would be in attendance at. At others, we have remained on different floors, and out of each other's way. His mother is still a bit formal with me, even after all this time. His brother and father are friendly, and always have been.

On Saturday, after the Christening, he was watching the door and holding the dog, and my daughter made a beeline for the dog as soon as she spotted him. Before I had time to react, my daughter plunked down beside my ex-boyfriend and started her non-stop chatter with him and the dog. My husband joined the conversation, and I tried my best to melt into the floor, as I watched an interesting display of emotion play across my ex's mother's face as she also watched the ironic little scene playing itself out...More than any other relationship, that one crystallized the qualities I needed, and found later, in a partner.

The universe is pushing me to learn, clearly, with all these juxtapositions of present and past. I never resolved the bullying from high school...and the pattern thus repeated itself in my professional life, where I've been bullied on a professional level. My perceptions were challenged by the old college chum and the "hindsight is always 20/20" rule applied in the irony of my husband and my greatest heartbreak chatting together with my daughter. As my friend who posted the high school picture is wont to's time to thank the past for the experiences and cut the karmic chord and release the grip of the negative energy. Now if I can just find those darn scissors...