Golden Chances

This morning while I got ready for work, I listened to Josh Groban’s “Stages” albumI grew up listening to Broadway musicals on my mother’s hi-fi, and knew most of the words to every Rogers and Hammerstein’s show so when “If I Loved You” began, I put down my mascara and paused to remember.

Carousel_theatrical_film_poster_1956One summer night when I was a child, my parents allowed me to stay up late and watch the original version of “Carousel” on our black and white television.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with this musical, the original show debuted on Broadway in 1945, and was made into a movie starring Shirley Jones and Gordon Macrae in 1956.  It is a sweet and sad story of a jaded carousel barker and an innocent young millworker who fall in love at a Maine carnival.  The fake New England accents are atrocious.  The acting is stiff. But the dancing and music are stupendous.  It is worth an afternoon on the couch just to watch the choreography.

The real treasures in this movie are the songs.  I distinctly remember trying to hide my tears from my father during “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” He noticed that I was crying, gathered me up in his lap, and told me I should never be afraid of letting my feelings show.  Whenever I recall that moment, my throat tightens and my eyes fill up.  He had no idea how his kindness affected me.

I love all the music to “Carousel,” but for me, the true show-stopper is “If I Loved You.”  Oscar Hammerstein’s simple phrases woven through Richard Rogers’ melodic passages are poignant and speak straight to the soul:

“If I loved you,
Time and again I would try to say
All I’d want you to know.

If I loved you,
Words wouldn’t come in an easy way
Round in circles I’d go!

Longin’ to tell you,
But afraid and shy,
I’d let my golden chances pass me by!

Soon you’d leave me,
Off you would go in the mist of day,
Never, never to know how I loved you
If I loved you.”

 So this morning, when Groban and MacDonald hit the phrase “I’d let my golden chances pass me by!” my eyes began to smart and tear, and it wasn’t from my eye makeup.  Perhaps it is the blending of their two voices; a crystal harmony that hangs midair for a split second before falling to earth.  Or perhaps the sadness of the song brings me back to my childhood memory with my father.  Actually, I think it is influenced by all of the above, but mostly it is the theme of the song- the thought of letting one’s golden chances pass by- that cuts deep into my soul.

Golden chances are everywhere.  They are there when the crickets hush their dance before the thunder of a summer storm splits the sky. They are when we inhale the scent of freshly mown grass.  It’s a golden chance when we take late afternoon stroll with a loved one and watch our shadows stretch across the sidewalk.  Or when we bite into a freshly picked strawberry while it is still warm from the sun. And for sure, it is a golden chance to drowse by the ocean on a sizzling afternoon, drifting to the cadence of the surf and the calling of distant sea gulls.

It is so easy to get caught up in the spinning of our lives’ carousels and so easy to allow golden chances slip through our fingers. How easy it is to be too busy to listen to a first grader stumble through the pages of his reading assignment?  Or too tired to listen to a thirteen year old recount every detail of who danced with whom during her middle school mixer?  Or in too much of a rush to let the elderly person who only has five items in his basket go through the checkout before us?  When was the last time we put down our phone, closed our computer and shut off our TV in favor of listening with an open heart to a loved one?

Thinking about golden chances has changed my life.  I cherish those rare moments when I am with my siblings.  I linger over dinner with a friend.  I look for a chance to be a little kinder.  A bit more thoughtful.  A lot more attentive.

judahLast Saturday while Abby and John did errands, I took care of my two little grandsons.  Judah is four now and Abram fifteen months.  We played with blocks and cars, ate peanut butter sandwiches, and hunted dinosaurs in the dark corners of my apartment.  After lunch I looked at the crumbs on the floor and the half-finished milk warming in Judah’s cup.  I usually don’t sit down until everything is cleaned up and stowed neatly away.  But not this time.  Instead, I captured both wiggly little boys and squished the three of us into my rocker.  I rocked and started to sing old folk songs that my mother had taught me when I was Judah’s age.  The boys snuggled close and relaxed into my arms, their heads swaying gently on my shoulders as we rocked and sang.  Between verses of Bobby Shafto and Lavender Blue, I drank in the scent of these little ones, relishing every breath.  Abram fell asleep. Judah sucked his thumb.  It was thirty minutes of heaven- a golden chance that I will cherish forever. abram

I will probably always tear up when I hear “If I Loved You.”  Too many golden chances have already passed me by.  But we have today, and God willing, tomorrow.  The carousel is turning, the golden ring is just ahead, and my arm is stretched to grab it and never let it go.


Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Puccini Early in the Morning

mimiWhen I was growing up, my mother often listened to opera music on the record player.  She had loved the opera since she was a girl, and often took the train into Boston to see a matinée performance. My siblings and I heard stories of how she always missed the final act of La boheme, never seeing Mimi fall into her final repose, because she had to catch the final train back to Andover.  She explained the story lines, encouraging us to read the librettos that were neatly folded in the record jackets.  I would scan the page, listen for a few polite minutes, and run off to play hop scotch or kick ball.

My father disliked opera music, and openly complained if my mother played it, but when he was not home, my mother had free reign over the hi fi.  On days when she planned to sew, she carefully removed a vinyl disc from its cover, blew off any dust, and gingerly placed the needle at the beginning.  Soon, echoes of Carmen, Rigoletto and La Traviata would fill the house.   We children often made fun of it, mimicking the mezzo-soprano arias, but my mother blissfully hummed along, pins in her mouth, sewing machine at full tilt.

As I matured, so did my taste for music.  One Sunday evening, Aida was on PBS and having never seen an entire opera, I sat down to watch – just for a few moments.  By the end, two hours later, I was sobbing.  However, my family did not enjoy opera so for the next ten or fifteen years, I never listened to it, save part of an aria bastardized for a television commercial.

Over the years, Mom replaced her scratchy records with DVDs and even put some of her favorite performances on her Ipod.  When she died, I inherited much of her collection, and about a year ago, I began listening to the opera music she loved so much.  I find it enchanting.  Enrapturing.  I forget what I’m doing and find myself in the midst of the scene, surrounded by the players

This morning as I readied for work, I listened to Maria Callas sing “Un bel di” from Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.  The aria is sung by Butterfly – a young Japanese woman who had married an American at fifteen years old.  She married out of love and reverence. He, out of convenience.  As she awaits his return after a three-year absence, she sings, not knowing that he brings his American wife with him, intending to divorce the naïve Japanese teenager.

…He will call, he will callbutterfly
“Little one, dear wife
Blossom of orange”
The names he called me at his last coming.
All this will happen,
I promise you this
Hold back your fears –
I with secure faith wait for him.

It is a heartbreaking piece of music- filled with emotion that wrenches the hardest heart, pulling tears from the driest eyes.

And therein lies the rub.  For a few short rapt moments, I was sitting by Butterfly and she poured out her heart, forgetting that I had just finished applying my morning makeup.  I remembered my first love, the excitement and intensity of it all, and the crushing blow at the realization that it was not to be. My heart swelled with the music, and spilled over, leaving streams of black mascara in its wake.  I had to wipe it off and start all over. Mom would have been proud.

Okay, I admit I am a bit overly emotional.  But here’s the thing.  Opera speaks to the soul as much as it does the eyes and ears.  If you’ve not ever sampled it, try a small sip- just a small bit.  It may be like a fine wine, where you have to acquire a taste for it, rather than say, a margarita that you have to keep yourself from chugging.  But it is truly worth sampling, again and again.

So try it. Just not in the morning when you are putting on your makeup.

Radio Head

I love the radio.  Most days while I work, I keep mine tuned to a Boston station that plays an eclectic mix of oldies and Indies.  I find that music sets a tone of relaxed enthusiasm in my office and helps my creative juices flow.  The clock radio I have at my desk is one that I received as a Christmas gift the year I was expecting Gabriel.  In 1984 it was cutting edge, with a blue LED display and snooze button.  The sound quality is surprisingly good, and the sight of it makes people laugh because it looks so “old school.”

For as long as I remember, I have listened to the radio.  My parents often had one playing in the kitchen while they juggled coffee, eggs and kids in the mad rush between sleep and school.  Their favorite was Bob Steele, whose chatty relaxed style made WTIC from Hartford the preferred station in our house.  To me, Bob Steele was as familiar as my father, as jovial as Captain Kangaroo and as comforting as Walter Cronkite.  On the mornings when I missed the bus, my father would drive me to school and together we would listen to Bob play the Dad’s favorites- Billy Butterfield, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles.  I remember one particularly difficult conversation with my angry second grade teacher who demanded to know why I was again so late.  “It’s my father’s fault,” I mumbled, cheeks red.  “He made me listen to the Big Bopper sing “Chantilly Lace.”

The spring that I had the measles, my mother made a bed on the couch in the den so I could listen to talk radio between naps.  Too ill to watch television, I laid in bed and listened for the “beep!” that announced that the speaker had changed from the host to the caller. The callers, in an attempt to hear themselves over the air, often kept their radios turned on, despite the host’s urgings to turn them off.  They were always betrayed by the echo of their voices, and the host would again tell them to turn off their radios, his exasperation evident in his tone. I found this far more entertaining than the actual discussion.

The Christmas before I turned fifteen I got my first transistor radio.  It ran by battery and had a single ear plug so I could listen to it from under my covers.  I stayed awake past midnight listening to “Midnight Confessions,”  “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Hey Jude.”  My radio became a constant companion, as the Hi Fi in the living room was usually playing music of my parents’ choice, and besides, I had no money for records.  I listened to my favorite artists while I dressed for school, while I did my homework and while I drifted off to sleep. I lazed on a blanket in the hot beach sand, listening to “Sweet Caroline” and “Marrakesh Express” on AM radio’s Top 40.  

When I went to college, I discovered FM radio- cool stations manned by students with beards and pony tails who had shelves and shelves of albums in the studio.  It was through FM radio that I honed my love for acoustic music instead of the over-produced studio sounds.  I listened to FM radio when I joined VISTA and went to Idaho, but when “Dust in the Wind” was replaced by “Hooked on Classics” my love affair with radio began to fade.  By the time the back of my station wagon was filled with car seats, I had pretty much given up radio all together, choosing to have my toddlers sing along with a tape of Raffi’s “Baby Beluga” instead of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

When Elizabeth was four, I returned to work, and once again rekindled my relationship with the radio- mostly to make the half hour commute more palatable.  As the children grew, I found listening to their favorite stations brought us closer together, and although my preference may not have been boy bands and Hootie and the Blowfish, I endured endless repetitions of “Tearin’ Up My Heart” to bridge the gap between parent and teenager, and it worked. 

My office radio has kept me in touch with the changing world.  The OklahomaCity bombing, the verdict of the OJ Simpson murder trial, and the divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana were announced through the radio on my desk.  On September 11, I fought back tears as my favorite radio program was interrupted by the falling of the Twin Towers.

This morning, like most mornings, I entered my office, switched on my computer and tuned my radio to a Boston station.  I know what the traffic is like, what weather is predicted and when the pressure from my job starts to build, I can float away- just for a moment. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, Van Morrison is on the radio and I love this song…

I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing

Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them!
~Oliver Wendell Holmes

My son Gabe recently posted a song on YouTube:

His song speaks gently, but powerfully about the pain that those suffering from mental illness  endure.  I am amazed at his insight and touched by his tenderness.  But I am not surprised.  Music has been a part of his life since he was a toddler.  When he was two, he listened to the opening chorus of a Winnie the Pooh record so many times he wore a hole in the vinyl.  As a preschooler, he would frequently hum bars of music under his breath while playing with toy cars and Lincoln Logs.  In elementary school, he arranged books on his bed as a makeshift drum set and pulled elastic bands over tissue boxes to form a guitar.  When he was an awkward, tongue-tied teenager, he wrote lyrics instead of doing his homework, allowing the poetry to speak words that his mouth could not. 

In our home, music was at the core of most activities.  I cried while slicing onions and listening to “Aidia” and “La Boheme.”  I danced with newborns to Hayden and Beethoven, and polished furniture while singing along to “Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent.”    The children fell asleep most nights while listening to their dad play scales on his guitar, and chased each other under the pews of our church sanctuary while our worship team practiced on Saturday mornings.  To them, music is as automatic as breathing, the moments of their lives set against an ever-changing sound track of notes and lyrics.

Still, when I hear them create new melodies and pen their own poetry, I can’t help but marvel that they have not only appreciated the talents of other musicians, but have dared to share their souls with others.  They bare themselves, removing the distance that protects them from their critics, and allowing their innermost feelings to lie exposed, open to harsh comments carelessly hurled in their direction. 

They know that eras in history are earmarked by the songs that are popular with the masses.  More importantly, they understand that music is a powerful medium that can catapult society into an environment of change.  They know this because I introduced them to Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.  They show this because they introduced me to Damien Rice and Sufjan Stevens.

I believe that when God gives us gifts, He gives us the responsibility to use those gifts in a way that makes this planet a little better for those who inhabit it. 

Thank you to those who shoulder your responsibilities and share your gifts.  If you don’t mind, I’ll sing along.

High Five for the Hifi

When I was a kid, my parents had a hifi in the living room.   It was a heavy mahogany lift-top console with a turn table that held stacks of records and automatically released a fresh platter after one had finished.  By inserting a larger cylinder, forty-fives could be played the same way.  I can still hear the plop of a new record hitting the turn table and the scratch of the needle as it caught the dust at the beginning of the first song.

Our hifi was in continuous use.  My father played country western and jazz.  My mother played opera and show tunes.  By the time I was five, I knew all the words to West Side Story, Lil Abner, South Pacific and Flower Drum Song.  I hummed the melodies from La boheme and Madame Butterfly.  I recognized Billy Butterfield’s trumpet, and sang hymns with Mahalia Jackson.  

45s were the most exciting records.  The first I remember had “Volare” on one side and “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” on the other.   My older sister and I bought 45s at the five and dime in stacks of 10 for a dollar.  They were mostly cut outs and outdated songs, but we played them all.  I still can hear my brother Scott, belting out “Last Kiss” and dancing to “White Silver Sands” before he was old enough to tie his own shoes.

One Christmas, my father decorated a wooden box to look like a Christmas gift.  He wired a speaker to the old HiFi, put it inside the box, and placed it in our front yard so people could hear Christmas carols while they walked to church on Sunday morning.  Nothing was so exciting as playing in the snow while the Ray Conniff Singers performed “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.”

The first record album I owned was The Beatles “Yesterday and Today.”  I had the version with Paul sitting inside the trunk and I kept it for at least twenty years .  It broke my heart to trash it but the sound had become gravely and it skipped during “Yesterday.”

I was given my first stereo while I was in high school.  My parents got it by subscribing to a record club.  It came with headphones that looked like giant brown mushrooms, and I would go to sleep at night listening to George Gershwin and Roberta Flack.

Music has been the back drop for the different phases of my life.  Scenes in my memory are punctuated by the songs that ran through my head at the time;   Splashing in the ocean while to strains of “June is Busting Out All Over” as a six year old.    Harmonizing to “Sweet Baby James” while painting with watercolors in a high school art class.   Lugging a back pack and guitar to Idaho to “Dust in the Wind” as a VISTA volunteer.     “Yellow Submarine” as I tucked young children into bed.  Dave Matthews Band echoing “Crash into Me” at the skating rink with my seventh grader.  And long stretches of cello music the week of my father’s last sunset when he faded from this life to the next.

Like most parents, we encouraged our children to make music important in their own lives. We paid for piano lessons, drum lessons, band camps, vocal lessons.  We went to concerts and performances.  We bought stereos, instruments, and IPods.  We listened to their music. They listened to ours.  Often times, strained relationships between parent and child can be bridged by sharing a favorite song, or going to a concert together.  And when the noise of the budding rock star turns to notes of the accomplished musician, it is truly music to our ears.  When we give our children music, we give them beauty.  We give them expression.  We set them free to sing, to dance, to fly.  I’m sure my parents had no idea how important that old hifi was.  Or perhaps they did.

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