How Can I Keep From Singing?

Submitted to the DAR Women’s Issues Essay Competition. It received state honors (Louisiana). OK, Charlotte, here it is. 

I suppose I’ve come to that “wise woman” part of my life, even though I don’t feel wise. I am a wife, mother, office manager for my family business, songwriter, and vocalist. I am occasionally asked for advice by young singers.

I tell them that a vocalist can never replace their instrument. If it gets damaged or broken, we can no longer sing – or we must find a way to deal with the damage.

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This is the story of my own damaged instrument. Not my voice, but my ear. My advice to young vocalists has expanded to include: If you ever experience sudden hearing loss, it is a medical emergency.  I tell them about the symptoms of Meniere’s Disease.

I juggled singing with job and family life. I sang with my blues band, at my church, at our local Jewish temple, and with my music partner in our Gospel duo. God makes each of us an instrument, and I did my best to learn to use and care for my musical instrument. Call me “Queen of the Earplugs;” I treasure my ears.

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Earplugs don’t help with allergies, though. For years, I’d have occasional bouts of clogged ears and dizziness during high allergy seasons. One December day a few years ago, my ears clogged.

I thought it was allergies, or possibly I’d caught my husband and daughter’s virus. I had things to do at the office and two sick ones to care for. I knew what this was, took ibuprofen and antihistamines, but it got worse.

I couldn’t hear anything clearly in my left ear. While it had been several years since my last “spell,” I’d had a severe dizzy day recently, so I saw my ENT, who was familiar with my history. I expected the usual cortisone pack, but this time he looked at me with concern when I told him this had lingered for three weeks.

I knew from his expression that something was different this time. This should have run its course by now, he said. He prescribed cortisone and an antifungal.

“When will my hearing return?” I asked.

“Let’s wait and see what the medication does,” he replied.

I took what felt like a never-ending course of cortisone and Valtrex.

After a month of medication, Dr. Robert ordered an MRI. Fortunately, there was no tumor, but no answers either. I went to the audiologist for a baseline audiogram. There was nothing but noise and pain in my left ear. Results? My right ear was good, but my left ear showed a profound hearing loss. I took a copy of the report home, filed it away, and cried. I cried me a river, as the song says. How ironic.

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I told only family and closest friends. I quit scheduling band gigs; even with earplugs jammed into my ears, I was afraid to take any chances. Meanwhile, a bizarre group of sounds had moved in where my hearing used to be: Tinnitus. In different keys. All at once.

Dr. Robert had told me that we needed to wait a year, as there was a chance that my hearing would return with time. Meanwhile, I had this invisible, sudden, crippling loss that I couldn’t even talk about or escape. After asking my husband to repeat something for the third time one evening, he voiced his frustration. “Are you DEAF?” he cried.

I fell apart.

“YES, I AM.” I replied. “In one ear. Half of everything I hear is GONE.” He felt terrible. So did I.

I began telling a few people about my loss. I was shocked at some of the responses.

“Well, I guess so, all that loud music you play!” A laugh. “I could have told you THAT was going to happen!”

Really? I’m the one wearing earplugs, remember? I have the small band that is known to be considerate of noise levels.

My response was anger. Then, there was the well-meaning advice about earwax, about this doctor, that diet, this treatment, etc. No, a cochlear implant would only destroy the way I hear music.

That year was one of adjustment, resignation, and hope. In many ways, I had to relearn to sing because I had to learn how to hear again. Our brains are wired for stereo, and that was lost to me. I quit going places where a large group of people gathered because I could no longer discern voices in a conversation. I quit going to movies and concerts and any live presentation because they were hard to follow. Everything was a wash of noise, coated with a blanket of anxiety and occasional panic.

I considered hearing aids, although I had no idea how to pay for them. We had two children in college. This was hope, though: One day, I can get hearing aids. 

I longed to hear in stereo. I wanted the safety of knowing where a sound originated. If someone called my name, I had no idea of where to turn. I don’t know where a siren or horn is coming from in traffic.

I wanted to hear music in stereo.

When the year was up, I went back to Dr. Robert and the audiologist. I was hopeful, as Erica, the audiologist, had successfully fit my father with hearing aids. I was determined to put up with whatever adjustment was needed. Surely no hearing aid noise could be more obnoxious than tinnitus!

The testing was similar to a routine audiogram. Erica explained that the noise and sounds and speech I would hear in the headphones would be adjusted just as it would be with a hearing aid, so we would find out whether or not a hearing aid would help me.

Whether or not? I hadn’t realized there was a chance that this wouldn’t work.

Today’s hearing aid technology is phenomenal. From what I knew about audio engineering, the ability to adjust amplification of specific frequencies in a device so tiny was nothing short of a miracle.

Unfortunately, this miracle was not to be mine. No amount of amplification or adjustment made a difference – only physical pain. I sat in Erica’s office and sobbed as she held my hands and offered tissue, understanding, and honesty. The cilia, the microscopic hairs of the inner ear that enable us to hear, were dead. No diet, supplement, medication, procedure or technical device would restore them. I faced a life in monaural, but at least I had one functioning ear.

She also offered a tentative diagnosis: Meniere’s Disease. My decades-long history of periodic dizziness was a clue. I’d had several particularly violent dizzy periods in months preceding the hearing loss. During the worst dizzy periods, I always spun to the left. I had become so used to a dizzy period during high-allergy months that they just became a part of life, diagnosed previously as “Benign Peripheral Vertigo.”

I learned about Meniere’s Disease, and saw my history written in what I found. Dr. Robert’s suggestions to address the vertigo were basically the same as for Meniere’s, but I felt defeated as I learned that no one knows the cause of the illness, and there is no cure. My years of periodic spells, interspersed by periods of feeling normal, had a name. Interestingly, it affects more women than men, and the possible causes include infection, allergies, head injury, stress, fatigue, migraines, respiratory infection, and an autoimmune response. I wasn’t too surprised that women experience Meniere’s more than men. It usually affects one ear, but sometimes attacks both over time. I cannot dwell on that. It is critical for me to maintain my balance, and I mean that metaphorically as well as literally.

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Balance.

It’s not always obvious that I have a hearing deficit, but an astute observer will notice. I’m getting better at lip-reading. In music, I seek the right position to hear what I need to hear in order to sing. In any group seating situations, I tell the person on my left “I’m deaf in this ear. If you say something and I don’t respond, it’s because I didn’t hear you.” I’ve learned to deflect the still-painful topic of hearing aids by saying “it’s a sensorineural hearing loss, which cannot be fixed by a hearing aid.” I’ve learned that such queries are usually out of concern.

I also tell others that sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency, even if you’ve had it before and you think “oh, allergies.” I also tell them about Meniere’s Disease.

On the positive side, the dizzy spells have mostly stopped; this, too, is typical of Meniere’s. As for singing, I’ve had to hyper-focus my sense of pitch, which has strengthened my vocals. I’ve heard of other vocalists who have experienced a similar hearing loss who have quit singing.

I can’t not sing. I have found a new way of listening, and a new way to focus on the experience of singing. It is a whole-body expression, as you must feel the vibrations and melody in your body. Your mind, throat, ear, mouth, lungs must know how the notes feel as well as how they sound. Perhaps it’s similar to the heightened sense of hearing that some vision impaired people have; I am partially deaf, so I have an enhanced sense of certain facets of singing that some take for granted.

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How can I keep from singing? At a Women at the Well concert. Photo by Rev. Kemper Anderson, at St. James Church in Cedartown, Ga.

About three years into this journey, my music partner and I were preparing to go on a short tour of several churches in the mid-Atlantic states, performing our original Gospel program about Jesus’ women disciples. We had recorded several of the songs from the program, and I longed to re-record some vocals and add harmonies.

Singing overdub harmonies is a challenge when you have only one functional ear. I managed by notating the harmonies, placing the headphone behind my one good ear, and forging ahead in spite of fear deep in my soul. What if I couldn’t do it?

But I could, and I did. A few days later, after the vocals were mixed, we shared the tracks with a friend. Danny is a gifted pianist who tours worldwide and has done a lot of recording and harmony vocals. He knows of my hearing loss, and was floored when he heard the harmonies.

“That’s a miracle,” he said, “that you could do that.”

It is a miracle, and one for which I am profoundly grateful. I still ache over the loss, but on the other hand, I now sing more sacred music and chant. Sometimes frustration still rises to the surface. That’s when the words and music of the hymn How Can I Keep From Singing sustain me:

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing

            It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?                      

It’s National Bubba Day!!

I just learned that today, June 2, is… (drum roll)….

NATIONAL BUBBA DAY!

Seriously. I don’t know who comes up with these things, but on the National Day Calendar website, June 2 is listed as National Bubba Day.

Now, this is cause for celebration of All Things Bubba. You see, Bubba is the other “B” in B & B on the Rock, my Gospel duo that performs the Women at the Well program and other spiritual music. You may have encountered this particular Bubba in this blog in the past in this post and this post. However, since it’s #NationalBubbaDay, this post will celebrate Bubba-ness.

its a southern thing

First, a bit about Bubba-ness in general. Bubba is usually a Southern Thing (sort of like the word y’all), and is sometimes looked down upon by folks in other parts of the country who don’t understand. (Bless their hearts.) “Bubba” usually came about as baby-talk from a sibling who couldn’t quite say “brother.” Everyone usually has a few Bubbas in their life, and they are almost always the nicest guys you know. Sometimes the quirkiest, too, which is a good thing. In Louisiana, Bubbas make you think they’re just a good ol’ boy, and then Cajun-engineer a solution to a problem that you didn’t know you had…and you’ll thank them. Or laugh your head off. Or both. Seriously, Bubbas are usually very, very smart – and hide it from you. Never underestimate Bubba.

The particular Bubba in my life, my brother-from-another-mother, Joshua “Bubba” Murrell, is extremely intelligent and creative. He’s a loyal friend, great music partner, and certainly is…entertaining. He’s also a Grammy winner.

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This guy can make music with just about anything (even a straw) but builds guitars.

Bubba carbon fiber guitar

He also builds virtual rollercoasters and theme parks for fun, but watch out if he gets around a go-cart or other fun, driveable thing.

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What, you can rent one of these? ALL IN!!

He’s a computer geek and enjoys a good conspiracy theory. Be careful when you ask him a question, or you may get an answer that leaves your head spinning and you wind up in the “BubbaZone.”

I’ve known Bubba for a long time, and we’ve embarked on many a creative venture.

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At a Women at the Well concert at St. James Episcopal Church, Cedartown, Ga. (Photo by Fr. Kemper Anderson)

He’ll take inspiration and run with it. My husband once built a potato gun – one of those lovely PVC pipe creations that shoots potatoes. Bubba got inspired and built one as well, and painted (camo) and added a laser scope. Ah, the Bubba-ness!

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David (hubby), Bubba (with potato gun) and Greg (brother)

Then, there are the bonfires. Every few years, when the weather cooperates and we can acquire the wood, we have a family bonfire that seems to have grown bigger and bigger.

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Building a bonfire. I’d call it Bubba-engineering, but this is a team effort between Bubba, Greg (above) and David, so we’ll call it “Cajun Engineering.” They’re very similar, anyway.

Comedian T. Bubba Bechtol, also a highly successful public speaker, explains the essence of Bubba-ness and even has a “Bubba Code” at www.tbubba.com. He’s also (like the Bubba I know) a wholesome guy, not given to shock comedy or the like; it’s clean and funny.. He points out that “T. Bubba’s Church preference is “Brick”. Which pretty much sums up the essence of Bubba-ness: Live and let live, it’s all God, don’t be afraid to explore, and don’t be afraid to be crazily creative.

Today, celebrate #NationalBubbaDay with your favorite Bubba! And if you don’t have a Bubba in your life, well, bless your heart, you poor thing; you just don’t know what you’re missing.

Singing Bowl 2

I recently wrote about how a singing bowl came into my life.  I’d wanted one for a while, but didn’t really know where to find one, and wanted to choose one “hands on.”  I found the bowl (or rather, it found me) at the Summer NAMM show in Nashville in June.

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This lovely purple Ovation guitar also found me at NAMM, but unlike the bowl, didn’t follow me home.  whew.

The day I found the bowl was a Friday, and the next afternoon we were scheduled to play a concert featuring selections from Women at the Well at Grace Episcopal Church in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. We left the NAMM show  at 6, ate supper and decided to do a quick practice.  We use backing tracks for some songs and had recently decided to switch to using an iPad for tracks, and wanted to make sure everything went smoothly as technology has a tendency to invite gremlins and other “ghosts in the machine.”

One song (without tracks) is titled Our Father, Our Mother. It has sparse instrumentation, is a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, and is…well, a chant. When I wrote it years ago, it came to me easily and suddenly. I love the song, and love singing it.

We moved quickly through the set, reviewing all songs with tracks first to ensure that the iPad would behave.  So far, so good.

Then, I had an idea.

“Hold on a minute,” I told Bubba, and walked to where the bowl was sitting.  I had just bought it that afternoon, and had been enjoying its tone in a more quiet environment.  I picked up the bowl, struck it, and began singing.

Father, Mother, God, Creator, hallowed be thy name. Upon earth; thy will in heaven, be all things the same….

Bubba joined in on the keyboard.  The bowl was the right pitch for the song.  No wonder this bowl and I got along so well; I was tuned to it. I asked Bubba to keep the keys sparse, and we continued the song.  To my delight, it worked…wow, did it work. What synchronicity!

Grace Episcopal Church, Hopkinsville, KY

Grace Episcopal Church in Hopkinsville, KY

The next day, we packed up the bowl along with our instruments and headed to Kentucky. It was an easy drive, a beautiful day, and a lovely church. Rev. Alice Nichols met us, and made us feel most welcome.  I love older churches.  Not only are they beautiful, one can feel the echos of generations of worship deep in the structure itself.  We set up, and the sound of this handmade, prayer-filled bowl filled the church.

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Setting up.

Even the iPad was still behaving!  We relaxed and took in the sights of this lovely church, which included panels honoring church members who had fought in the First and Second World Wars.  The needlepoint cushions at the communion rail were filled with rich symbolism, and the baptismal font told stories of generations of new lives.

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Some of the needlepoint at Grace Church

The evening began with a Eucharist, and then it was time for the concert.

That was the moment that the iPad officially became an iPest.  Or perhaps an iPain.  The volume control, which had behaved perfectly during all run-throughs and tests, vanished. Well, not vanished, exactly, but the dreaded greyed out.  It was visible, but infuriatingly nonfunctional.

It’s times like this that try the mettle of any musician.  Happily, the congregation could all relate to techno-glitches, and when it comes to technology, we have triple-redundant backup readily available…so we switched to the CD player. (I figured that the iPad would find its wayward volume control by the end of the concert.)

In the meantime, it was the bowl’s debut.  One strike, one tone,  and I began to sing. I could feel the vibrations of bowl and voice.  Later comments indicated that others felt the richness of the bowl in that song as well.

At the end of the concert, sure enough – the iPain worked.  We all shared a good laugh, and then a lovely reception with fellowship and good food.

Grace has a beautiful labyrinth across from the church.  Alice and I had originally discussed the idea of performing at the labyrinth, but it had been too hot (and humid) that day. After packing up instruments and gear, we took some time to walk over and enjoy it.  I took a quick walk, breathing in the aftereffects of the concert’s energy.

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Joshua at the labyrinth

The following day, we packed up and headed south, with a stop at Moony’s Market in Monteagle, Tennessee.  We’d found this delightful health food store / gift and antique and herb / yarn shop on our April visit and performance in nearby Sewanee. Oh, the yarn! Oh, the food! I purchased a small African handbasket – which I later realized was the perfect size for transporting the bowl.  More synchronicity, or at least my subconscious mind at work.

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Ready to travel! And why not? Bowl and basket both have come halfway around the world already!

In addition to bringing me daily beauty and mindfulness, I think this bowl and I are meant to go places and make music together.

God provides.

Someone asked me at a recent church performance, “how did you find us?”

Ah, the wonders of the internet.  I’ve been contacting people for years about Women at the Well. I have used clergy directories, word of mouth, mailed postcards and letters, called, emailed, and have visited many websites to search for and connect with congregations that might be interested in the music and the message of Women at the Well.  Music partner Joshua (aka Bubba) and I have met some wonderful people and visited churches and congregations of various sizes over the years.  I can’t exactly compare us to the early Christians, but hitting the road and visiting other churches, groups and denominations is an awesome experience, and is teaching me whole new lessons about God providing what we need.

Last spring we visited several Unity churches as well as Episcopal churches.  Rev. Sandy Boyer of Unity of Hagerstown, MD helped us to make connections with other Unity congregations – all of this done by distance and online.  I was so happy to meet her and visit in person!  At that time, their congregation was meeting in a temporary space; since then, they have begun meeting in space provided by St. Mark’s Episcopal church in Hagerstown.  While intention, prayer and love can bring holiness to most places, their intention, prayer and love put ripples into the cosmos saying “we’re ready for a new home!” I’m delighted that they have found a space that is more, well, worshipful! God provided.

On that same trip, we also performed at Unity of Palmyra, Pennsylvania.  They were gifted with a church building.  Yes, gifted.  Given.  Someone gave them a building – a church building. This particular church building had been built by a different Christian denomination about a hundred years ago.  That congregation grew until they needed a larger space.  Rev. Julie Vance told us that the church had been purchased by local contractors with the intention of giving it to a congregation.  Other groups had applied for the building, but the Unity congregation received the gift. God provided.

Unity Palmyra

Interior of Unity of Palmyra, PA. They were given this church building. Wow!

I wish I had some better photos, but this should give you an idea of the gift. This was taken as we were setting up and early birds were trickling in for the concert.  (Alas, taking pictures isn’t high on my list when we are setting up and running sound checks – I guess that’s why I don’t have an Instagram account…)

I love the stories of buildings, especially places of worship. They carry the spirit and intention of generations of prayer and community.

St. James Episcopal Church in Cedartown, Georgia is such a place.  It’s not a big church, and it’s over 125 years old.  In the 1880s, an Episcopalian couple from New York began having Episcopal services in their home.  The congregation grew, raised funds for a church, and the funds were matched by the couple, Mr. & Mrs. A. G. West.  As their home church in New York was St. James, the name St. James was chosen for this church in Cedartown.

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St. James Episcopal Church in Cedartown, Georgia

The current rector of St. James, Fr. Kemper Anderson, came to the priesthood after 3 decades of work as an emergency medical technician, police officer, and Coast Guard Reservist.  We found common ground as he also plays guitar and sings – and while in the Coast Guard, he came to Louisiana to assist with hurricane cleanup and recovery.  His wife Phillipa is a member of a vocal group that I want to hear live one day: Vintage Vocals.  (Heck, I want to sing with them live, too! The CDs will have to do for now, though.)  The congregation didn’t need a building – but the rector seems to be just the right fit.  The blessing works both ways: What a wonderful, welcoming congregation! God provided.

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B & B on the Rock at St. James Episcopal Church.  Photo by Fr. Kemper Anderson.

God always provides, but we have to be ready to receive! Sometimes what we’ve prayed for doesn’t look quite like what we anticipated or hoped for, and we might miss it when it shows up. (Then again, there are times that an answer to prayer or a wish fulfilled arrives so quickly and so exactly that you are blown away. Like my singing bowl.)  It’s important to trust, and to keep your eyes and mind open. I think that an attitude of “OK, God, however and whenever you want to deliver it is fine with me, because I know you have it all figured out” is important.  But boy, sometimes that’s a challenge!

I’m reminded of a true story that friend/author/teacher Lynn Woodland shares in her Miracles Course.  A man in one of her classes was praying for “a wonderful relationship with Mary.”  Mary was his wife, and they had been having problems.  They finally wound up divorcing.  He let go of the prayer, because – well, they were divorced, right?  He went on with his life, and over time began dating again.  He met and formed a wonderful relationship with someone new, and his life was richer than ever, in large part because of this relationship.

Her name was Mary.

Yes, God has a sense of humor.  And God provides.

Singing Bowl

Each summer, I escape the flatlands of south Louisiana for some time in Tennessee.  It’s never long enough, but always fulfilling and downright fun, as the time is spent visiting friends, playing a few gigs, and attending the NAMM show in Nashville.

NAMM stands for the National Association of Music Merchants, and they have a huge trade show in Anaheim, California each January to introduce new instruments, new technology, and just about everything new (as well as old and faithful) in the world of musical manufacture.  I’ve been to the Anaheim show a few times, and it is busy, crowded and crazy.  The Nashville show in the summer is smaller, with fewer booths, but has the advantage of being within driving distance.  It’s also in an area of the country that I love.

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A quiet moment at the Summer 2016 NAMM show

I’ve found several instruments and fun things over the years at NAMM, and the show always brings wonderful synchronicity for music partner Bubba and me.  A summer NAMM show was where I discovered and fell in love with Luna guitars.

That same show was where Bubba and I met mastering engineer extraordinaire Roger Nichols (think: Steely Dan) and where he offered to master our Blue Merlot CD.  We have found instruments, equipment, and made new connections and friends over the years.  Bubba, who is a Grammy-winning engineer and producer, goes with a list of manufacturers and new software / gear that he wants to learn about.  I go with an open mind, looking for inspiration (as well as a wish list of items, such as an easy midi controller for our pipe organ at Epiphany).  Last summer I found a wonderful harp (Harpsicle) that has given me relaxation and another inspirational sound to play with.  (www.harpsicle-harps.com)

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My Harpsicle…pluck away in Dorian mode for lovely, relaxing (and easy) music!

As we walked from the car to the Music City Center, Bubba asked “are you looking for anything in particular?”

“Nah, not really” I replied.  I was more focused on the gigs we had lined up, and was content just to see what was new, though heaven knows we need some new mic stands.

“But…” I said, “I would love to find a Tibetan singing bowl.”

This isn’t the type of thing that we usually see at the show, but you never know.

We arrived, got our badges, and I put in my earplugs to buffer the onslaught of noise that is typical for NAMM.  Every guitar slinger, drummer, etc. wants to try out the goods.  I keep thinking that it would be nice if NAMM posted the “key of the day” so at least there would be some continuity in the cacaphony, but that hasn’t happened. We entered the huge showroom, with aisle after aisle of everything from acoustic guitars to zithers.  The first booth we saw had tubas in purple and other bright colors.

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A very bright tuba!

 

BUT – right next to that was a booth with Tibetan singing bowls!  A whole booth of singing bowls,  crystal bowls, tingshas, drums and more.

Now at NAMM, there is a background melee of every kind of musical instrument, soundtrack, synth and drum that mashes together in a mess that doesn’t even resemble music but rather what I imagine a barrel of wet, angry cats would sound like.  Anyone with “soft” instruments is at a disadvantage, especially if they are anywhere near the drums (this is a “hands on” kind of show). This particular booth, Serenity Tibet, was an aisle over from the drums.  Yikes, how was I going to hear them?

In spite of everything, there was a sense of centeredness in the booth. Bowls like this are used in meditation.  A quick lesson from Ruby Shrestha taught me how to elicit tones from the bowls – that I could hear, in spite of the screaming cats chorus all around me.

No one had to show me how to feel them.  These bowls vibrated like crazy.  At the Serenity Tibet boot, I learned that Sureen Shrestha uses bowls like these in healing and teaches healing at his school in Colorado. I’ve been drawn to sound healing for a long time, and these bowls seemed to be an affirmation that this is an interest begging for more exploration. I purchased Sureen’s book, How to Heal with Singing Bowls, and resolved to purchase a bowl the next day.

I began reading the book that night, and felt a click of agreement when I noticed that Sureen referred to quantum theory in his book.  We feel and interact with sounds and vibrations. As a singer, I feel the songs that I sing.  (Yes, some feel much better than others, and it’s not necessarily linked to the lyrics.) On the very smallest level, we are – and everything in creation is – energy.  Like sound, we are made of vibrating particles / waves, in a marvelous swirling sea of cosmic energy.

I could go off on a quantum tangent here, but I’ll save that for another day.  Let’s just say that the tones and vibrations of the bowls are very centering and grounding.  The give you an aural sigh of relief felt throughout the body.

I selected a bowl the next day, or perhaps it chose me.  Through the rest of our trip, it came with me everywhere. It stayed in the car only when we were going to a different place – I brought it out to ring wherever we were, experiencing calm when I did so. What a great way to re-energize hotel rooms!  A visit with friends Deacon Diane, Vickie and Sister Madeleine Mary saw (and heard) the bowl passed around, and sparked a conversation on sound and spirituality. The bowl began inviting synchronicity and happy accidents immediately (more on that in another post).

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The bowl that asked to be mine.

The bowl that I selected is handmade, formed and hammered from 7 different metals that Ruby explained correlate to the 7 chakras, or energy centers of the body.  Most are made in Nepal, and they are infused with prayer and intent as they are crafted.  You can learn more about these specific bowls at  www.atmabuti.org.  Other bowls were machine made, inscribed with the beauty of images, symbols and Sanskrit prayers and words.  I saw and heard an incredible frosted crystal bowl, inscribed with Om. Even in the noise bath of NAMM, we could hear the voices and feel the spirits of these bowls, bells and drums.

I am often amused at how new things – especially musical things – pop into my life.  This little bowl was an immediate and complete response to my thought “I’d love to find this….” It doesn’t always happen that way, but it’s fun when it does.  We resonate.

Mountain Thoughts

My friends Diane Moore and Victoria Sullivan are both gifted authors (and publishers) who divide their time between south Louisiana and the mountains of Tennessee.  In addition to new worlds of poetry and polyploids (more on that later), they have introduced me to the Community of St. Mary, an Episcopal Benedictine convent on the mountain in Sewanee. Music partner Joshua (aka Bubba) and I were featured musical performers at a recent fundraiser for the convent.

It was a weekend of unexpected blessings and surprises.  We were provided lodging in the convent, and this respite from daily life was welcome indeed.  Not just the quiet and beauty of this place on the mountain, but the peaceful presence of the sisters create a haven saturated with the presence of spirit. Even cell phone service is nonexistent. Hooray!

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Convent of the Community of St. Mary, Sewanee, Tennessee

Saturday was a day of focus on the fundraiser, a focus on the gig.  Haul equipment, check out the venue, set up, do sound check, run through everything, put away cases.  Head back to the convent to change for the evening.  No big meal prior to playing or singing, so we fixed plates of a delicious meal and asked the caterers to please keep them safe as we’d be eating later.

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Setup for St. Mary’s Gala…I’m glad we only had to deal with the sound system and instruments!

A room a bit too cold for this south Louisiana singer; I was trying to ignore the temperature as I sang.  Don’t move around, the stage floor was hollow, and our prerecorded tracks (which had behaved perfectly in rehearsal) decided to skip occasionally.  Technology is wonderful – when it works. (Computer? Tablet? Misbehaving!)

The evening was enjoyable in spite of a couple of gremlins in the technology, and successful.  Sister Madeleine Mary and her team of interns (Heather, Waddy and Andrew) had put together a wonderful event, and we were delighted to be a part of it.  At then end of the evening, it was teardown and loadout.  In the midst of it all, we discovered that the caterers, in their rush to clean up, had thrown out our food.  So much for that caramel cheesecake…sigh. I probably eat cheesecake once a year, and that was going to be my yearly cheesecake decadence.  Oh, well.  A late-night trek to McDonald’s in a nearby town brought memories of even later night meals after bar gigs. I finally crawled into bed exhausted.

Sunday morning I pried myself out of bed at 7:40 and performed the barest basics of morning presentability.  I made it to the chapel for Eucharist with 5 minutes to spare.

st marys chapel

The chapel at the convent. (Don’t you love fisheye lenses?)

I was expecting a small crowd, but this tiny chapel was full.  Barely awake (with no time for coffee), I settled into the liturgy and hymns with relief.  I’m tired, Lord, but I’m glad I’m here.  I relaxed into the community of the congregation.  In addition to the sisters, interns and Diane and Vickie, there were quite a few faces I’d seen the night before.

The service ended and we enjoyed breakfast together.  And coffee.  (Thank  you, Lord, for coffee; it is absolutely one of your finest creations, along with music and chocolate. Amen!)

I looked to the afternoon, spread out before me with very little “to do” listed there.  Lunch at 1.  Repack the car.  See some mountains. Take some photos. Listen. Above all, just listen, just be.

sewanee view

Dogwood trees on the mountain

Every child attending a Catholic school hears, sooner or later (usually both sooner AND later) , The Lecture On Vocations. Is God calling you to Holy Orders?  I’d heard The Lecture often, but could never imagine myself in such a setting.  I knew the Sisters of Mercy that served my school, and spent some time visiting and praying in their convent.  I could not see myself there, and always felt a call to motherhood instead.

The Community of St. Mary, though, is more than just the sisters who live in the convent.  They have associates who live in the community, and the convent’s influence is evident to even a new visitor such as myself.  The rhythm of their lives and peaceful presence are threads woven beyond the physical space of convent and chapel.  Through our mutual friends, they have touched my life in the past as far away as south Louisiana.  Through spending time here, they have touched my life again, and I returned home to Louisiana with a bit of their spirit with me.

The very air there is saturated with a sense of the creative, evident in some of the silent auction offerings at the gala, and certainly evident in the writings of Diane and Vickie. One of Diane’s poetry collections, In a Convent Garden, has a photo of a small concrete statue of a merry nun on a swing.  I smiled when I saw the original. Two of Vickie’s novels deal with a fascinating “it-could-almost-happen” new race of humans called polyploids.  I will let creativity strike as it may and be content that I soaked up the blissful peacefulness.

Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. – Luke 5:15-16

I realize such quiet time isn’t a luxury, but a need. If Jesus needed solitude and “down time,” don’t we all? I was reminded of a far distant ancestor of mine, who at the end of a life of political and family intrigue, leadership, and imprisonment, retired to a convent in France.  I can understand her desire for the sanctuary that such a place provided.  We all need rest to combat the weariness of the spirit.

Diane’s blog is A Word’s Worth

Vickie’s first book about polyploids: Pinyon Publishing

Poetry and other good reads by Diane, Vickie, Anne Simon and others at Border Press

 

 

Gratitude: Beethoven.

On December 17, 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in the Roman Catholic parish of St. Regius in Bonn.  245 years ago today. The rest, as they say, is history, and so much more.

I’ve loved his music for most of my life.  In childhood, I had a bust of Beethoven on my piano (who didn’t?).  I remember when my grandmother came across this picture of Beethoven in front of his house, framed it and gave it to me.  Beethoven house

My cousin, an artist, created a Beethoven teeshirt for me. What I knew of Beethoven as a child fascinated and frightened me – it was said he had a temper (and he certainly had wild hair) – but oh, his music.  OH, his music!!

Part of the delight and wonder of it was that a budding piano student could play what the Great Man wrote. No waiting years and years for the musical payoff. Who hasn’t tackled Fur Elise with a sense of delight and accomplishment when the notes finally flowed smoothly? And who, knowing of his deafness, hasn’t been awed by the sheer fact that he wrote so much glorious, soul stirring music in silence?

Then again, it wasn’t silent inside of his head, and thank God for that.

There are countless articles, books, histories, etc. written about Beethoven.  A wonderful read, published about 15 years ago, is Russell Martin’s Beethoven’s Hair.  This book weaves together three true and fascinating stories: The story of a lock of Beethoven’s hair, snipped by a student after his death and encased in a locket, the story of two men who purchased it in 1994 and their subsequent testing and investigation of the lock, and the story of Beethoven himself.  It’s a riveting read which sheds scientific information on the centuries-long mystery of what caused his deafness.

Beethoven hair book

It’s not exactly a spoiler alert – the news has been around for a while, although I still see articles online that say “no one knows exactly what caused his deafness.”  The beauty of molecular testing on hair is that you don’t just get a picture in time, you get a picture of what was going on in the body over the period of time that the hair grew.  You see what was ingested; poisons, drugs, etc.

Testing revealed massive levels of lead.  It’s probable that Beethoven had somehow ingested large amounts of lead over the decades prior to his death.

Perhaps even more surprising is what was not found:  No evidence of painkillers for his ever-increasing pain.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.  How could a soul so much in touch with the most incredible subtleties of expression bear to dull himself so?  I am more in awe of him than ever.

Who else could introduce such stories in so few notes?  And then, he took those notes and gave us all the details, all the joy, the pain, the yearning.  A man in such pain (for many reasons) wrote the most incredibly healing, magnificent music. One of his great lessons is that there is always beauty, no matter what life gives you.  One work that came out of his deafness was his 9th symphony with its magnificent 4th movement.  It’s music that takes a soul straight to heaven.

I cannot play any of his works masterfully (or even close), yet I play them for myself.  It gives me joy to do so, and sometimes it just gives me solace.

Today, and every day, I am grateful for the music and the life of Ludwig van Beethoven.

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The Guevara lock of hair is permanently housed in the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose University.