Archive for July, 2010

Tomorrow many of my former colleagues, as well as friends, and those who I have never met, but whom I support in faith, will gather to raise their voices against the horribly restrictive law (SB 1070) of Arizona that is scheduled to go into effect tomorrow.  It will be sweltering hot, and they will be outside, some in clerical collars, others in “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts, many with buttons that show an inverted blue triangle or the statement “I could be illegal.”

I wish I could be there with them.  They have gone to say, once again, that laws that discriminate against a person because of race or ethnic origin are simply wrong.  As Sheriff Joseph Arpaio prepares his outdoor holding pen to contain those who he and his deputies plan to arrest under the new law, thousands of others will chant and pray, march and demonstrate, for the civil rights on which this country was founded.

I am grateful that a federal judge today blocked some key parts of this law from taking effect. In issuing her decision Judge Susan Bolton wrote, ““There is a substantial likelihood that officers will wrongfully arrest legal resident aliens.   “By enforcing this statute, Arizona would impose a ‘distinct, unusual and extraordinary’ burden on legal resident aliens that only the federal government has the authority to impose.”

We should not think that, by virtue of Judge Bolton’s ruling, the crisis is over.  The debate over the law that was passed by the state electorate is almost surely bound for the US Supreme Court, and there are hotly-held feelings on both sides.  I can not forget, and Elie Wiesel does not want any of us to forget, that in another time individuals were hauled off the streets, incarcerated, and gassed because of how they looked, their last names, or their religious beliefs.  We are fools if we believe that such things can not happen in the United States, because this Arizona law is a perfect example of the same circumstance occurring.

As I have noted previously, I am the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants.  My last name, my cultural and religious beliefs, all connect me to my Ashkenazic Eastern European relatives.  And I will not forget, and I will not go away, and I will not be silent or back down.  I applaud the stance taken by Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales and UUA Moderator Gini Courter: we must protest, whether we are in Boston, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Miami, or Podunk.  I’ll be here in Lexington, Massachusetts, but I will be wearing a blue triangle and a badge that says “I could be illegal.”  And I will be carrying my passport with me as well.  I can only hope that all over the Boston suburbs, as in other parts of the country, thousands and millions wear the same badges.  They connect us to brothers and sisters we have never met who seek a better life in the country that has held so much promise for nearly three centuries.

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Years ago, my best friend in high school said to me, “Did you know that Time Magazine is coming to do a story on our drama club?  How cool is that?”  I took the bait, hook, line, and sinker.  After all, we had a great drama club, with a wonderful teacher.  Our high school had been hit (like other school in the late 1960’s) by some very bad racially-motivated disruptions and one riot — a terrifying episode with chairs being thrown in the cafeteria and kids running from the school to get out — and I thought, “oh, they want to come tell a story about all the good stuff going on here!”  I had the rationale figured out, and of course, I told lots of other people this good news.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t true.  I had been snookered, and I felt totally stupid for having believed the story.  I should have known better.

OK, I was a high school kid, and a gullible one at that.  But why is it, please, that a lot of high-placed government officials, including a cabinet secretary for crying out loud, exercised no more skepticism or discernment than that high school kid of long ago?  The Shirley Sherrod story could have been checked out in an hour or less.  Andrew Breitbart is not a stealth right-wing operative, his motives and methods are very well documented.  And he’d already brought down the community group, Acorn, and another White House employee, Van Jones.  And it’s not like we don’t know the direction in which Fox News (or, as Keith Olbermann calls them, “Fix News”) goes in.

Shouldn’t there have been some little voice in the back of someone’s head, when this whole scuzzy story came up, that said, “Check it out.  Don’t be pushed by the 24-hour news cycle and the requests for immediate comment.  Wait and do your homework.”  One of the things I’ve told friends and clients, over and over again is:  “when the media calls and asks for comment, don’t feel compelled to provide an immediate response.  Do your background work first.  Make sure you know your own talking points.  Take the time to say what you really want to say, rather than what is demanded by the news outlets.”

Well, the USDA and others obviously weren’t listening to me or others who could have given them the same advice, and now all of us who care about human rights, race relations, and effective government, plus all of Obama’s media operatives, have an embarrassing mess to deal with.  Ms. Sherrod lost her job in a very public way, there’s been a whole lot of apologizing and backpedalling going on, and Andrew Breitbart gets lots more media attention, which he craves.  All for want of an hour of research and a little deliberate consideration.

A former boss of mine, a minister who has a deep understanding of effective public witness, once suggested that the very first goal of public relations should be “to not look stupid.”  I’m with him on that:  it’s like when physicians take an oath to “first, do no harm.”  Whatever else there is comes after that.  Beyond “don’t look stupid,” however, should be these:
– Do your homework.  Not to write a term paper, but to make sure you know who is behind a rumor and who else is driving it.  And research those other people who turn up, too.
– Talk to those likely to be affected first.  If you’re feeling like a statement needs to be made on closing the widget plant in East Galumph, talk to the Mayor of East Galumph before you tell the newspaper you’re taking action.  It’s not only responsible, it’s considerate and logical and it avoids unpleasant surprises.
– Make sure you have your talking points in place, and use them.  Choose no more than three, be sure that you have them clearly in your brain, and don’t get distracted by other points that the media might raise.  Stay on message.
– If requests for more comments come, stay focused on the work that is yours to do, and don’t cave in to threats, slimey comments, or other tactics to induce you to make a statement.
– Model responsible behavior and treat your colleagues and employees fairly.

Sometimes I feel like these things are regarded as a far stretch, or too time-consuming or difficult to accomplish.  But why?  This is simple logic, and it can save an awful lot of mess and tsouris later. Not to mention ugly charges of racism and discriminatory practices.  Just ask Tom Vilsack or Shirley Sherrod.

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I just finished processing the last of seventeen jars of four-berry jam (currant-blueberry-raspberry-cherry) in my canning kettle.  I’ve had the blue kettle, with it’s now-rusty jar rack, for years, and it’s the same one my mother had.  Hers was just like the one her mother had — the one I remember when we visited the farm in Cuddebackville, New York.

Canning is not easy.  I realized, only after I had prepared all the fruit for the jam, that I didn’t have enough jar lids — or, for that matter, enough jam jars — to handle what I was making.  So I sent Ben off to the store to buy jar lids (and more sugar).  Turns out that almost no one knows what canning jars are, or dome lids, for that matter.  After a bunch of calls, I found that one of the four supermarkets in the area had the lids — but they had already closed for the night.  At 7:15 this morning, I was at the store, sweeping up a couple of flats of jars and three boxes of lids, so as not to run out again.

I fear that putting food by is a dying art.  The bounty of the season is coming in right now.  I suppose the stores may view supplying canning supplies (including paraffin, pectin, and even drying racks) as competition for their prepared foods, but to me, this is a matter of reminding all of us where food comes from and what it means to eat healthfully. I bought almost all the fruit for this jam at the local farmers market, knowing that I was supporting local agriculture and getting food that was not processed – most of it organic as well.

Ben asked me today why I do this, and it’s a good question.  I didn’t grow the fruit myself and it’s not cheap – although the cost of ingredients makes it about 1/3 less than what I would pay in the supermarket for the jam. It takes a lot of time and last night, a lot of sweat as well, to make your own preserves.  But I know exactly what went into this jam, and there are no additives, no corn syrup, no preservatives.  It’s got three ingredients in it:  fruit, sugar, pectin (if you count the 1/2 teaspoon of butter that went in to reduce foaming while cooking, make that four ingredients).

I support local farmers wherever I can, a tribute to my grandfather and all who work to grow our food.  I want my children and our family to remember that food is sold in grocery stores, but it’s not grown there. And pretty soon I will be harvesting my own produce, and I’ll be thinking about what I can ‘put by’ for the winter from the garden:  dilly beans, perhaps, or tomato jam.

For the big-ticket canning that I’ll be doing, however, I’ll be buying local.  I just talked to my best friend Connie, and we compared notes on what’s coming in in western Montana vs. the northwest Boston suburbs.  She’ll be making cherry jelly and putting cherries by in a crockpot, along with sugar and vodka, to have delicious cherry cordial in the winter.  Even though she’s made dozens of jars of rhubarb jelly already, there will be a second crop, along with raspberries, which are starting to yield now.

Here in my area we’re starting to see local peaches, and that may spur me to make some of my Gram’s recipe for peach and cherry jam, or my own spiced peach preserves.  In a few weeks, the rest of the canning will commence:  bread-and-butter pickles, and a run at my Gram’s oldest recipes, which date from her mother:  corn relish and chili sauce, which our family always ate on the New York-style baked beans (less molasses than New England style) that were a regular feature of Saturday night suppers.

When I was a kid I remember my father, who grew up poor in the tenements of Newburgh, New York, going downstairs to the basement as the winter set in, to the fruit cellar he had built to hold my mother’s and my canning efforts.  He’d organized all the jars of red, green, yellow, orange, purple by color and type.  He would smile, survey the jars and say, “Well, we’re ready for the winter.”  That was all he needed to be comfortable as the snow began to fly.

Life is good.  In the kitchen behind the table where I sit, I hear the ping of the dome jars sealing.  My hard work has been preserved for the months to come.  Some of this will go to friends and relatives, some will go to our store room downstairs, waiting to be opened up for biscuits or even the best peanut butter and jam sandwich you could want.

Sometimes I joke about being a “pioneer woman,” but after a morning of canning, I do feel like I have that spirit.  I’m not putting the canning kettle too far into the back of the closet, because I’ll be dragging it out again soon.  The summer’s in full swing, and I’ve got my jars ready to go!

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I just returned from five remarkable days in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was part of the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network annual conference.  It was packed, end to end, with singing, learning, watching great performances, and sharing sound and experience with some of the most inspired musicians in our chosen faith community.  Once again, as I felt when I was at Star Island living in the middle of so much music and sound, I felt like my head was about to explode from the sensory stimulation — this time with attention focused on the connection of music to faith.

On Wednesday night, I eagerly awaited the conference opening worship service, which was held at a large United Methodist church adjacent to the conference hotel.  The attendees rose in body and spirit, as every year, to sing together “When in Our Music”, the piece which captures the connection of sound and spirit which begins:

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound
© 1972 by Hope Publishing Co.

As is always the case, I had a hard time keeping it together while we sang.  We listened to the pieces – performed by a wonderful choir – which won this year’s Silliman Anthem Award competition, celebrating the best of Unitarian Universalist choral anthems.  We welcomed newcomers to the conference – more than thirty of them, I believe – and prepared to delve into the ways that music moves the head, the heart, the spirit.

And so it went for the rest of the conference.  One of the things I love about the UU Musicians Network — and there is lots to love — is the commitment that folks have to offering dynamic ministry to the world through music and worship.  There were continuing education opportunities offered in composition, conducting, children’s music, music for healing and transition, building dynamic ministry teams, integrating instruments into worship, using Finale (software for music notation), best practices for working with choirs, and lots more.  There were master classes with composer Stephen Paulus, who was commissioned to write a magnificent piece for the UUMN conference choir to perform.  Paulus has had an impressive career, and he is not, as my mother used to say, chopped liver, but rather a pretty big deal.  Stephen Alltop, who also arrived with impressive credentials, conducted the conference choir…a high-powered guy with a very easy-to-work-with style who got great results from us.

One of the high spots of the conference for me was the presentation of “Go Out!”:  a celebration of liberal religious heritage and values in words and music, by composer Elizabeth Alexander.  The presentation offered the words of many of the guiding voices of Unitarianism and Universalism and some terrific pieces, including a duet, “Die Gedanken Sind Frei,” a women’s choral piece that brought to light the words of the Edict of Torda, and another that celebrated John Murray’s exhortation to “give them not hell, but hope.”  This is a piece worth doing, and I hope that it will catch fire with musicians around the country.

There was more, of course:  handbells, Bach musicians, African music, Indian kirtan music with Milwaukee-based performer Ragani, a high-energy performance from the klezmer band Yid Vicious, recitals of classical, folk, contemporary, and eclectic music, a variety show that featured acts irreverent and delightful.  There was worship – services so good that they rank among the best worship I’ve ever been part of.  And there were deep connections made, so valuable there is no way to put a price on it.

From start to finish, every day from 8 AM until 9:30 PM (and that was only the ‘formal’ part of each day), participants were living, breathing, doing music.  This is a more profound “Alleluia,” to be sure.  May the gifts that we received continue to be brought forth to bless the world.

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A few days ago, while sitting in the waiting room outside a doctor’s office, I picked up a ‘women’s’ magazine (Good Housekeeping) and started leafing through.  The magazine was celebrating 125 years of publication, and in one feature, they were recognizing the 125 “women who changed our world.”

I grew up in a rather paradoxical environment where the role of women was concerned.  My mother, who wanted to encourage me to be whatever I wanted to be, was also very protective.  I was not, for instance, allowed to attend American University in Washington, DC, because my mother deemed it ‘unsafe’ for me to be there.  Instead, I went to a nice “girl’s school,” Russell Sage College, in Troy, New York (the college is fine, the city, however, is not).  My mother, who worked as a teacher, occupational therapist, and dietician (the latter two unlicensed positions) felt, truth be told, that women were inferior and not nearly so interesting as men.  She was far more focused on talking to men at parties and gatherings than women, and although she was a terrific cook and a good housekeeper, she was determined to do something that she deemed important with her life.

Her work with Planned Parenthood and later, her very successful career as a real estate agent, brought her fulfillment, but she never shook off the pervasive sense that women weren’t usually worth paying attention to.

I grew up wanting to achieve, partly to show my parents that I could, and partly because I grew up in a time when women were being encouraged to believe that most anything might be possible.  Further, I married a man who comes from a family full of impressive women.  Ben’s mother, Phoebe Taber Hamilton Soule, went to Vassar and taught french at a private school until she became a full-time homemaker.  She traveled all over the world and worked actively for Habitat for Humanity.  I have called her “my sainted mother-in-law,” and she is high on my list of admired women not only for her kindness and generous heart, but because she pursued her education, taught, and traveled, at a time when many women were not doing these things.

Phoebe’s cousins once removed were very well known.  Edith Hamilton was an educator, and later a writer and mythologist — the author of “The Greek Way” and “The Roman Way,”  books still recognized in schools and libraries for teaching classical legend.  Her sister, Margaret, was also an educator, and Edith and Margaret were honored by Connecticut College with a building named after them.  Another sister, Norah Hamilton, was a lithographer and printmaker. And another sister, Dr. Alice Hamilton, was recognized in the Good Housekeeping issue I was leafing through:  she was the first doctor of environmental medicine and taught at Harvard — even though Harvard would not allow her to robe and sit on the dais for the annual graduation ceremonies.  Two other cousins, Jessie and Agnes Hamilton, were painters of some reknown, and Agnes was also a child welfare advocate.

In other words, they were all uncommon women.  All this set me to thinking about the women I admire.  When I was small, I had a favorite book which I read, over and over.  It was about courageous individuals and it included profiles of Jane Addams, Clara Barton, and Marie Curie.  I loved those stories and sought out other biographies of women.  Like many other young women, I read “The Diary of a Young Girl” over and over, swept up by Anne Frank’s beautiful prose and her wisdom, so beyond her years.  I was captivated by the story of Annie Sullivan as she taught young Helen Keller against seemingly insurmountable odds.  And as a young adult, I admired the bravery of Jacqueline Kennedy, the guts of Gloria Steinem, the stentorian speaking and brilliance of Rep. Barbara Jordan.

I loved watching Hillary Rodham Clinton run for the presidential nomination, although I believed then – as I do now – that she would have polarized the electorate had she been nominated.  And I am thrilled with the way in which Michelle Obama — a very successful woman — has assumed her roles, both as First Lady and “Mom in Chief,” for our country.  My own mentor and inspiration  is Denny Davidoff, a woman who started her own public relations and advertising agency, became Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a founder of the Interfaith Alliance and Interfaith Alliance Foundation, and is, simply put, a force of nature.  If I can be one-tenth of what she is, I will have done well.

OK, I still don’t like Sarah Palin, although I continue to be impressed by the numbers of women she’s marshalling to stand up for a cause they believe in.  But even Palin gets a tip of my virtual hat:  these women, past and present, continue to prove to all who might doubt it what a powerful force women are in influencing our culture, politics, history and lots of individual lives.

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OK, I admit it’s a little corny, but I have always loved that song made popular by Bette Middler:  “You gotta have friends, the feeling’s oh-so-strong, you gotta have friends, to make the day last long…”  I used to go around the house singing it at high volume when I was a teen, because it just made me feel so good.

There are people who know me who are going to shake their heads when I say this, but the reality is that I am, inside, a pretty shy person.  I know how to go through the steps of behaving in an outgoing, even gregarious, way, but inside I’m frequently wanting to go sit in a corner with someone I know really well.  I am way better at doing the social butterfly act now than used to be the case…and I learned, early on, the trick that people said Jacqueline Kennedy used to deflect personal conversation:  I am good at asking people a question about themselves, which keeps them from asking about me, or making me talk about myself.

Really, when I was a kid, I often felt very, very alone — which, for an only child, can be pretty painful.  I don’t let people ‘in’ to my life quickly, but when I do, I am pretty much there with them forever.  If you are my friend, I will be with you through the bad and the good, and I will not let you go unless you screw me over royally — more than once.

I am one of the lucky people who married a man who is also a dear friend.  Ben and I have known each other since we were about four, and although we certainly took a long time to get together permanently and legally, the grounding of having been friends with, and worked with (on Star Island) someone who you like and admire and trust, can be the basis for a wonderful lifelong relationship.  Ben will love me when I am not loveable, he will listen to me whine and carry on and rarely complain, and he’ll also tell me the truth if he believes I’m off-base.  He loves to play games (me too), go off on road trips (moi aussi), and watch baseball (ditto).  It doesn’t hurt that we have a common set of values, even if we choose different ways to solve most any problem.

Of course, lots of people would expect you to name your spouse as your friend. But other friends can come few and far between. I am still in touch with the person who was my closest friend in high school and occasionally we skype (she lives in Canada, and has spent much of her life, since college, in Great Britain), and I have several people who I consider close friends here in the greater Boston area.

But since I was a freshman in college, I’ve been absolutely blessed to have one real longstanding ‘best friend.’  Connie was, when we first met, everything I aspired to be — self-assured, sophisticated, tall, thin, a clothes-horse.  She had lived in Geneva, Switzerland, where her father worked in DuPont’s International Textiles division.  Educated at the International School, she arrived at college with a trunk of Chanel suits and could, I soon found out, swear like a sailor.  I came to school from New Haven, Connecticut, with many of my clothes made by my mother, overportected, scared and homesick and very unsure of myself.  I remember that the rumor was that this gorgeous Amazonian creature was came from royal blood, and for a while, I believed it.

I watched from afar for a few days, but Connie and I really started to connect at a fraternity mixer (yes, this was the age when the frat boys at RPI held parties to ‘check out’ the promising new crop of girls — and that is what we were called — who had arrived at Russell Sage College).  Most of the young women had already passed out from drinking the frat party “Pink Thing” punch, but Connie and I were still standing, and we started talking.  We continued to hang out together…Connie preparing to be a registered nurse, me immersed in English literature and theatre studies.  We went to more parties, studied together, hitched rides to Vermont to visit Connie’s boyfriend, were occasional ‘bad girls,’ talked LOTS, and built a powerful connection.  Connie taught me about cheese fondue and drinking shots of really good Russian vodka, how to dress, and what it meant to be self-reliant, and I guess I may have offered her a connection to someone with a creative personality and a well-grounded typical American family.  Both my parents adored her, she came home for weekends and school breaks (Geneva was a long way to fly home) and my folks quickly decided they were ready to ‘adopt’ her.

Connie left school after her freshman year:  her father suffered a devastating stroke, her emotionally-abusive mother decided she was needed at home, the money ran out.  She moved to North Carolina, where her family had lived before moving to Switzerland and where they had returned post-stroke, working there until she fled to Vermont to join her soon-to-be husband, John, and before long, she married.  She worked as a waitress, then a veterinary technician, finished college, and there were moves to Maine and later, Montana, where she remains today.

Through it all, we have remained close.  If we’re lucky, we see one another every couple of years.  We talk on the phone from time to time, and when we do get together, we usually make jam, jelly, or other homemade canned goodies, go swimming or hot-tubbing, explore or shop, sit around and cocktail and talk a lot.  At Christmas time, I try to send her lots of homemade Christmas cookies, which I know she and her husband, John, will sit down and devour within a day.  She sends me some of her homemade preserves and ‘Made in Montana” delights.  We both get excited when those packages, which represent who we are, arrive.

Our lives are very different, but miraculously, there is still much to be shared.  When our younger daughter was born, she received her middle name to honor Connie – a woman who never had children of her own, who has more guts and courage and principles than most people I’ve ever known.  If Abby holds one ounce of Connie’s fortitude, she will be well-served in life.

Connie and I talked on the phone just the other night, and though I have no idea when I will next see her next, I felt the powerful connection that the years have only increased.  I know that she is there, ready to talk and listen, as I will be for her, now and as the years go on. I treasure the riches that come from knowing I am so blessed.

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It’s hot-hot-hot in Lexington, Massachusetts, and my mind has been wandering, as I think of other places where I’ve spent hot summer days in a pleasurable way.  The place where my head keeps going is my grandparents’ farm, in Cuddebackville, New York.  When I was a kid, we’d get in the DeSoto, with a pillow in the back seat for me, and off we’d go to the farm.  When we lived in Ohio the trip took a really long time – I can’t remember us staying overnight on the way, but I remember being cooped up in the car for hours – and it was always great to be freed at our final destination.

We’d drive down Route 209, the last part of the trip, and I’d smell the manure on the fields and watch the lightning bugs flying as the day died.  When we finally drove down the bumpy gravel driveway, I’d look for my grandmother, coming out of the house to greet us.  She always had a clean but plain housedress on, with her corset underneath, stockings rolled up at the thighs, and orthopedic shoes, hair freshly done for our arrival.  My grandfather would be sitting inside, in his overstuffed chair with the antimacassars on the arms and back, reading the paper or watching Walter Cronkite.  The cats, Taffy and Fluffy, would be hanging around, waiting for us as well.

We’d have a farm dinner (almost always including a huge plate of corn on the cob, boiled red potatoes, fried green tomatoes), plus homemade rolls, sliced red tomatoes, and a chicken my grandfather had dispatched earlier in the day.  There was unpasteurized fresh milk to drink with the cream floating on top — from the cows in the barn – and fresh strawberries or blueberries on vanilla ice cream.  Later on, there might be sitting in the living room while the grown-ups watched Lawrence Welk and I played with the dollhouse and dolls that were kept in the attic for my visits, or we’d get to see my cousins, Linda and Brenda, and their parents, my Aunt Edith and Uncle Fred.

Life was simple and good.  The next morning I’d get out of my rollaway cot with the quilt on it that Gram had made, and go to the kitchen where Gram was making a first breakfast for Gramp before he went out to milk the cows.  Second breakfast came when my parents were up, after the milking was done…and that was followed by Gramp’s retreat to “his” sitting area, in the cellar, near the coal furnace, where an old sofa was.  In the summer, Gram would sometimes go into the cellar to make jam, using the summer kitchen where it was cooler, to work her magic on peaches, strawberries, cherries, cucumbers for pickles, or to crank out her fantastic chili sauce or corn relish.  This is where I first got interested in cooking, and I paid a lot of attention to what she was doing.

My cousins and I would pick wild berries, walk down to the kill and sit with a fishing pole (I never remember us catching anything, but the cold water of the kill was wonderful on a hot day), or play in the corn crib up on a rise.  Later in the day we’d go to the old bus where Gramp weighed the eggs he collected from the chicken coop, or run alongside Gramp, his hired man, and Barney the dog, to bring the cows out to the night pasture near the end of the property.

I wanted nothing more than to explore the farm with my cousins or spend time with my grandfather.  Life was not fancy in this part of the world, and as I grew older, I got pretty bored with life on the farm.  It wasn’t till much later that I began to realize what a gift I had received from my grandparents and the rest of my family.  I really wanted to garden, and I started to seek out spaces where I could dig in the dirt and plant scallions or potatoes or carrots.  I realized that, when I was selecting corn on the cob, I had learned how fresh corn smells — and that smell is the only way I know to find the really good stuff.  I made jars and jars of jams, relish, pickles, and they were my Gram’s recipes.  One of the recipes even was featured in Yankee Magazine, when they ran their “Recipe With a History” feature.

When I think of home on hot summer days, my mind goes to the farm.  My cousin Linda lives there still, and the corn crib, though rickety, is still there, along with the barn.  When Judy Collins wrote the song, “Secret Gardens of the Heart,” she must have had such a memory in her head:

“…I still see the ghosts
Of the people I knew long ago
Inside the old kitchen
They bend and sigh
My life passed them up
And the world passed them by

Secret Gardens of the heart
Where the old stay young forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter…”
(Words and Music by Judy Collins. Universal Music Corp. (ASCAP)/ Rocky Mountain National Park Music, Inc. (ASCAP)

I see the farm shining in the sun and in my memory I’m eight again.  Tomorrow, on  another hot day, I’ll remember my grandmother’s iced tea (loose tea, fresh lemons, sugar, mint), the breeze that came from sitting under the catalpa trees, and my heart will once more travel home.

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During the past week, there were times when I said to Ben, “I think my head is going to come off.”  There was so much music, so much commentary and discussion and hands-on experience focused on music and rhythm and sound and the intersection of African influences and world music, I just had to go off for a little while and be quiet.

Star Island offers lots of sounds before anyone says a word out loud, and those sounds provided the underlying rhythm and pulse for all that went on during the week of music, music, music.  If I’m paying attention, I can hear the seagulls – both adults and the tiny, thin cry of insistent babies — as well as sandpipers, swallows, and other small birds.  There’s the bell buoy in Gosport Harbor, with its persistent yet comforting clanging, day and night.  There’s the fog horn on White Island Light.  The waves crash against the breakwater that runs between Cedar and Star Islands. There are sounds of kids at play and of swings going back and forth.  Occasional work vehicles move on the truck trestle roads hauling food deliveries and luggage to or from a boat. The wind whips the flag on the pole that sits on the front lawn.  The feet of the night crew can be heard as they make their rounds from 11 to 6, and there’s the sound of water as they pour pitchers of hot washing water for people to use at 7 as they rise.  Lots of ambient sounds.

Then, layer on the remarkable musical discussions offered by our All Star 1 theme speakers, all on the subject of “Ears Wide Open:  A Musical Odyssey.”  There’s Robert Levin, a drumming master of West African music, who took us on a journey into a Ghanaian village, showing us drumming and dancing and lifting up their influences on world music. And there’s David Garland, host of WNYC’s “Spinning on Air,” a composer/musician/musicologist who introduced us to avant garde music and the ways in which sounds have been combined, processed, and packaged to create music through different cultures and periods. Stir in a healthy dose of conference co-chair Carl Sturken, a songwriter and music producer who’s worked with Christina Aguilera and Rhianna, among others, and who is a walking encyclopedia of creative energy on music, its history and influences.

Add to that the constant presence of the All Star 1 “house band,” which includes a powerhouse of pro and semi-pro players who regularly blow our minds:  Theo Griffin (bass guitar), Kemp Harris (keyboards and vocals), Adrian Sicam (keyboards and vocals), Adam Osgood (harmonica and vocals).  On top of that add drumming wizard Ellen Clegg, keyboard master Ray Castoldi, Carl Sturken and John Robbins on lead guitar, plus several saxes, a clarinet, a french horn, a trombone, and (at another gig) Appalachian fiddle playing, guitar and banjo and spoons, and you’ve got a boatload of music.  And, oh yes, there are top-flight vocalists running around, too.  And a West Ghanian drumming and dancing class with Levin, every day.  Plus a performance by Victor Koblavi Dogah, a West Ghanaian drumming and dancing phenom who now studies at Berklee School of Music.  And did I mention the mini-concerts, and then, just for fun, a “Stump the Band” event in which the house band comes armed with the Billboard Top Ten list for the last sixty or so years, and folks pick a week to try and catch the musicians on a song that they can’t quite fake their way through.  That doesn’t happen very much – the house band is amazing.

There was so much music and rhythm, all set on Star Island with its own underlying beat…so much to consider about how music is made, what role it plays in different societies, and how sounds from one culture have become an integral part of another.

The intersections are truly mind-blowing:  not only is the music and rhythm and culture of West Ghana present in the jazz and second lines and Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans, the same rhythms influence the Bossa Nova of Rio and the Latin music we hear today from many world artists…and of course those beats and chord progressions also appear in popular music of the United States as well.

Carl Sturken ended this amazing musical odyssey with a long excerpt from the award-winning film, “Black Orpheus,” released in 1959 and featuring the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim.  He said, “two years ago, when I was imagining this week, this is how I saw it ending — because this film sums up everything that we have been talking about.”  As we watched the clips that sewed together the elements of juju — magic or voodoo — with West African beats, bossa nova rhythms, a classical story drawn from the legend of Orpheus and Euridyce, dialogue in French, the poverty and celebrations of Rio at Carnival time, the interconnections of the sound stew we’d been tasting all week came home.  And what a trip!  Please, sirs, may I have some more?


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As readers of this blog know, I’ve been away for the last week, vacationing off the New England coast on Star Island, a part of the Isles of Shoals. Star Island is incorporated as a religious and educational conference center and has existed as such since the late 1800’s, although its written history extends back to the early 1600’s.  For about 3 months during each summer, week-long (or multi-day) conferences gather, held by the stark beauty of Star Island, and then go away for another year.

A dear friend spoke of the experience of our Star Island conference being like “Brigadoon,” the Lerner and Loewe musical set in the misty hills of Scotland, where a town disappears in the mist of time, only to reappear for one day a year.  All the residents must stay in the town or the magical spell that keeps them alive will be broken.  And so, for that one day a year, life resumes as it has for centuries, and then the town ‘goes to sleep’ again for a year.

The week-long conference I’ve been part of since I was a toddler is called All Star I.  This gathering, attended by nearly 280 adults, youth, and children, is one where the attendees aspire toward beloved community.  And like the musical, annually the community gathers and reunions are held, the same routines observed, and then, like Brigadoon, everyone disperses, with only memories to hold them till the same reunion is observed one year later.

Of course it’s not really just like Brigadoon:  during the ‘off-season’ time, children grow up, have their own families and lives, people die, tragedies do occur, and no one’s life is frozen in time.  But the gathering of the clan brings catching up for those who haven’t seen each other during the year or stayed in touch on email or Facebook, a time for the extended family to mourn passages and celebrate milestones together.

People also try to engage in the activities they’ve held on to for all the years they’ve been part of Star Island, just to renew the memory or share it with someone they love. For me, that starts with looking at the flagpole and the walkway up to the old 19th-century Oceanic hotel, where the flowers bloom.  When I was a child, there were petunias planted along that path, and now, it’s nicotia…but … close enough.  The fisherman’s cottages that once housed the Newton, Randall, and Caswell families in the early to mid-1800’s are still there and now house us in minimalist comfort.  The view from the long piazza that runs along the hotel out to Gosport Harbor is the same year after year, offering views of the neighboring islands of Smuttynose, Cedar, Malaga, Appledore and beyond them, Duck; off to the left, Lunging, Seavey’s, and White – with the historic White Island Light — provide a sense of continuing reassurance to my eyes. If I walk toward Doctor’s Cottage, I’ll find a huge bush where the island blueberries grow — a sweet treat that I’ve sought out since I was a kid.  And out toward the old Ice House (now the Art Barn) are the rocks with the best view of the pounding surf and small clots of scarlet pimpernel tucked in, operating as the “poor man’s weatherglass”.  All this, and more, are burned indelibly into my mind.

Newcomers arrive each year into this extended family, and some of the family does not come back – separated by schedule conflicts, family crises, or the economics that have challenged most of us.  And conflicts do occur:  despite our wish for harmony, it’s not all Kumbaya here, and sometimes we bump up against each other, differing perspectives and values, and it gets dicey.  And a week on Star is no longer a cheap vacation, although it is not an extravagant one, either.

But for me and our family, it remains priceless:  where else can you find a history of pirates, famous painters and poets, the clearest waters off New England, and a community of amazing people, all wrapped up in one package, along with three showers a week?

It’s glorious, though it’s not Brigadoon, of course.  During the coming year I know that several in our community will likely pass away.  Some new babies will be born.  Children will leave for college or new adventures.  Several people will lose their jobs, and others will find new ones.  And who knows what will have happened in the world in a year?  Yet we will gather again.  I believe, with the same assurance that makes me trust the sun to rise each day, that this extended community will gather in the old stone chapel built in 1800, where the candle lanterns now used to light services at night once burned in the windows to guide fishermen home.  The blueberries and wild strawberries will still grow, along with the rock roses and the wild cat mint and mustard.  The energetic and friendly island staff of college-age youth, of which I was once a part, will be there to cheer arriving boats that emerge out of the fog of the mainland, welcoming us once again to our island home.

So in this year we will connect, and pull apart.  And next year I will see the same people that I played with when I was five years old, there with their families and the stories that the passing year has written.  It is a place where lifetime commitments are carved out and held.  Out of the mist we appear, and into the mist we depart.  It is the stuff of which dreams, and legends, are made.


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