This past Monday should have been the first University Chorus rehearsal of the semester.
As I have written about previously, a change in the choral program at Binghamton has resulted in the University Chorus being re-cast as an adjunct to the program, with community members being called in only when there is a large work programmed that needs supplemental singers.
On Monday, instead of being at rehearsal, I and three other long-time members met for dinner to commiserate. One of us does still have a group with which to sing for the winter/spring, but I and the other two are without a regular choral group for the first time in decades. This was my 36th year with University Chorus and the other two, who met and married as UC members, had sung with the group even longer.
We talked about current events and politics, our families and health challenges, and, of course, music and choral singing.
We can’t do anything about not having Monday night rehearsals together, but we will try to stay in contact over these months until University Chorus (we hope) re-convenes for the fall semester.
Earlier this month, the Binghamton University Chorus, with whom I am singing for my 36th year, sang a concert of music related to St. Mark’s in Venice. That means that most of the choral works were written for multiple choruses, so we needed lots of singers to present the music. We were joined by the Women’s Chorus and the Harpur Chorale and Chamber Singers and the University Symphony Orchestra.
I appreciated the opportunity to sing pieces by Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Schütz, and Rossi. I love singing late Renaissance/early Baroque music, but hadn’t had much opportunity since I was in college myself. My voice is well-suited to this repertoire and I learned a lot of new vocal techniques from our new director, Dr. Culverhouse.
Our performing forces only had the opportunity to rehearse together in the last week, which was stressful, but the concert itself went very well. Daughters E and T attended, while spouse B and six-month-old ABC listened from the lobby so as not to take the chance of disturbing other patrons. It was also nice to see our director emeritus and former University Chorus members in attendance. Dr. Culverhouse graciously acknowledged our former director and thanked all of us from the stage, which was very sweet.
But now the difficult part…
As I wrote in a prior post, in the reorganization of the choral program, University Chorus has been revamped. We used to be an independent entity composed of community members along with some students and faculty/staff. We are now a supplemental group of mostly community members who will only meet in semesters when the student ensembles need additional voices to sing major works or pieces that require more singers.
So, in January, instead of beginning several months of Monday night rehearsals leading to a spring concert, I’ll be without a chorus to sing with for the first time in decades. In March, I will be singing Brahms’ Requiem at Smith, when some members of the Alumnae Chorus join with the Glee Club and the Penn State Men’s Glee Club. Ironically, we alumnae will be fulfilling a role similar to what University Chorus has become, although without the opportunity to rehearse until the day before the performance. Fortunately, I know the piece very well, so my individual preparation at home will be easy, but the performance weekend will be intense.
It also turns out that one Monday evening per month, I will be able to attend an educational poetry event at the Broome County Arts Council. Additional skill building and writing time is always good.
What is even more special is that several other long-time community members of University Chorus plan to get together for some Monday evening dinners. After decades of singing together, we don’t want to wait until next fall to see each other again.
We will try to restrain ourselves from breaking into song at the restaurant…
Last week, I got a message on my answering machine from someone who is interested in purchasing solar panels in a community solar array with Renovus. Because we already own panels in a prior community solar installation with them and had agreed to be contacted, Renovus had given my name and number to a prospective solar customer.
I returned the call and had a lovely conversation. Of course, we started talking nuts and bolts about community solar, but then went on to talk about our all-electric Chevy Bolt, environmental issues, and living in the Southern Tier/Finger Lakes region.
We discovered that we both have connections to the Berkshires of Massachusetts and that we are both writers, although she has had a long career in writing and teaching and I am only recently (and lightly) published.
Now, we are friends on Facebook and perhaps, one day, will meet in person – brought together by the sun.
Today was the last full day of our Boiler House Poets second reunion residency at MASS MoCA. We packed it as full as we possibly could with poetry and camaraderie, knowing we will have to scatter to the winds tomorrow.
And it was my birthday.
* I wandered the grounds before the museum opened this morning. The Boiler House gate was open and the sound installation was operating; I got to experience it alone, walking all the way up to the top where I could look out over North Adams and MoCA, including all the solar panels. Alone – except for the pigeons who roost in the Boiler House, several of whom I startled into flight as I wandered.
* I did a walking meditation in the John Cage/Merce Cunningham Bridge with its current sound installation, In Harmonicity, the Tonal Walkway, by Julianne Swartz. For the second time this week, the art has brought me back to my first semester of music theory at Smith, as the installation is a form of musique concrète. The 13:40 minute loop is composed entirely of recorded human voices. This work inspired Marilyn McCabe, the Boiler House poet who conceived and produced our collaborative videopoem last year, to envision a sound project this year. We each recorded a short segment based on a single word for her today. Stay tuned for the final product when it is available.
*There have been so many lovely birthday wishes and supportive comments today. Life has been so complicated over these last months that there were times today that I felt overwhelmed. I would not have made it through without the support of my poet-friends here and the well-wishes that arrived today from family and friends. Thank you all so much.
*And our reading! Ever since the lead-up to the inaugural Tupelo residency that brought the Boiler House Poets together two years ago, I have wanted to do a public reading in North Adams. Because this is my home area and I have written quite a few poems about it (and just this week have organized the poems into the first draft of a manuscript), it felt like the right place to share some of those works. I also wanted to offer people here the chance to hear the work of the Boiler House Poets, each of whom is dedicated to her craft and to sharing her unique voice.
We presented our reading at Makers’ Mill, the art-space where we had taken our printmaking class over the weekend. Kate Carr, the former director of Makers’ Mill, graciously served as our organizer and accepted our invitation to read with us, as she is a poet as well as a visual artist. We were pleased that we had a receptive and attentive audience in attendance and that we had to quickly set up more chairs from the supply closet to accommodate everyone!
It especially warmed my heart to have my friends and family in attendance. Cousin S was there and my high school friend who hosted me for Sunday dinner. I was excited and amazed that a woman that I worked with over summers when I was in college came with her husband. I had not seen her since 1981. We have kept in touch with Christmas cards and notes over the years, but, because we aren’t connected over social media and neither of us are the type to send photographs, we didn’t have a visual reference for our middle-aged selves; still, I recognized her within seconds. I was deeply grateful to have four people there who are part of the community at large and was pleased that they liked my poems.
Poets are sometimes accused of writing predominantly for other poets. I don’t think that it is true of most poets, but I am sure that it is not true for me. I think of myself as a community poet and I think that most of my poems are not intimidating for general readers. Most people in the United States didn’t have much exposure to poetry in school, or, worse, came away with the feeling that they couldn’t possibly understand it because they didn’t arrive at the same interpretation as their textbook. I don’t want anyone to be afraid of poetry! I loved that our reading had a range of kinds of poetry that could be experienced on many levels. I know there were people in the room who could name the poetic devices being employed and appreciate the choice of particular words and sounds and knew the poetic forebearers of the style, etc. and there were people who just knew how each poem made them feel about gardens or good-byes or mocha sundaes. And it’s all good.
*After the reading, we poets stayed up talking and eating. I stopped into The Hub and got a mocha sundae to go as my birthday treat. Not as good as the old Apothecary Hall mocha days, but acceptable.
On Sunday morning, I went to breakfast early and was able to say good-bye to some of my classmates who were heading out before the official end of reunion to beat the Sunday afternoon traffic. Everyone was very appreciative of the events and very happy to have had time together. It is amazing how easily we relate to one another, even if we only see each other in person every five years, or even if we had not known each other well during our student days.
At nine o’clock, several dozen alumnae gathered at Helen Hills Hills chapel for a service of remembrance. I arrived early and had a few moments to talk to the college organist about changes over the years. His role and the life at chapel are very different than in my years at Smith. When I was a student, there were Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish chaplains and weekly services at chapel for each tradition, along with a network of faculty and community advisors for other traditions. There were three choirs who periodically provided choral music for services, plus a student led gospel choir which sang for some of the ecumenical Christian services and other student volunteers who most often led music at Catholic Mass. (As a Catholic and an organist, I played often at Mass over my four years at Smith, as well as serving for two years as accompanist for one of the choirs and playing almost every organ piece I learned as a prelude or postlude for the Protestant services.)
Now, there are no chaplains and no regularly scheduled religious services on campus. There are advisors available in different spiritual traditions. The chapel still has space for prayer and meditation, but the main body of the chapel is now a multi-use space for concerts, lectures, classes, and the occasional service, such as the one we were gathering for that morning. The chapel was built in the New England Congregational style, but the pews on the main floor have been removed and the floor was changed to wood. It is jarring to me to walk into chapel. I do understand the need to make the space more versatile, but I think it could have been done in a way that was more in keeping with the architecture had the floor been New England hardwood and the chairs less clunky and modern in design. Even more, I lament the loss of service and leadership opportunities in their faith traditions for current students on campus. It was powerful to have services that were planned and attended almost exclusively by women; this basis has been a rock on which I have relied often in the storms that have followed in subsequent decades.
Sorry. End of rant. Back to our service of remembrance…
The prelude and postlude were Bach and we sang three hymns drawn from various traditions and a fellow ’82er sang a solo. There were readings from the Bible, the Qur’an, and from Rumi. Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Matilda Rose Cantwell prepared and led the service very gently and thoughtfully. The most moving part of the service was when Rev. Cantwell invited alumnae to come forward and give a remembrance of someone close to them. People from many different reunion classes spoke about classmates, professors, and family members. Two of my classmates who were from Northampton spoke movingly about their parents’ relationship with the town and the College. My college roommate, who served as one of the deacons of the Ecumencial Christian Church, spoke about two of her fellow deacons who died, Beth, during our senior year, and Amy, who died just weeks before reunion.
Then, we continued on to our final official reunion activity, Sunday brunch. Our table did express our disappointment that our favorite sour cream coffee cake was not on the buffet.
We went back to our rooms to pack up and make sure that our headquarters was squared away before we left.
Several of us decided to stay in Northampton another night in order to process and decompress, particularly to support our two housemates who had chaired the reunion for our class. We decided to visit the Art Museum, which had a special exhibit on the villas of Oplontis near Pompeii. We then dispersed for hotel check-in and reconvened at Fitzwilly’s in downtown Northampton for dinner, joined by a housemate from the class of ’81 who lives locally. We then went back to one of the hotel rooms and proceeded to talk and talk and talk, with quite a bit of laughter mixed in!
We spent Monday morning doing what we needed to do, in my case, catching up on a bit of shopping, including buying some Massachusetts maple syrup to bring home for us and for Nana and Paco. We met for a final lunch together at Paul and Elizabeth’s, a restaurant at Thorne’s Market that was new when we were students. More eating, talking, and laughing and then a round of good-byes.
Before I left Northampton, I had one more visit to make. Another business that opened in Northampton when we were students is Steve Herrell’s Ice Cream. I always visit when I am in town. They have redecorated since my last visit, giving more area for seating. I splurged and ordered a sampler so I could have four flavors: black raspberry, malted vanilla, peppermint, and apple cider. Yum! I was happy to have the company of my in-town friend. We lingered for a long while, catching up on our lives and marveling at how Smith friends, even when they don’t see each other often, can immediately re-connect on a deep level.
Eventually, though, I had to head for home, although I could not help but feel that reunions are too short and too far apart.
A family friend when I was a child often said, “Well, bless her heart,” whenever someone did something well-meaning or wholeheartedly.
Meryl Streep discussing Florence Foster Jenkins, whom she portrays in the new film of the same name, says that people at the time had one of two reactions to hearing Florence sing, either “bless her” or laughter.
Both of these are shown in the film.
Florence was a piano prodigy as a child, who lost her ability to play due to a physical condition. She continued to love music and, in adulthood. became an important musical philanthropist in New York City.
Florence liked to sing with heart and emotion. What she didn’t realize was that her physical malady had adversely affected both her ability to sing on pitch and her recognition that she was not singing on pitch. In order not to hurt her, her husband and her friends protected her from finding out the truth.
I love Meryl Streep’s work. She always brings depth into her portrayals as she does here. As a singer myself, although a choral soprano rather than a coloratura who can toss off the “Queen of the Night” aria at the drop of a hat, I was amazed at Streep’s ability to sing as Florence did – almost, but not quite up to the pitch.
On Fandango, the movie is listed as both a comedy and a drama. While there are moments of laughter, I can’t think of the film as a comedy. I think it is better characterized as a reflection on the power of music, service, friendship, and love in the face of adversity.
Florence, bless your heart. Meryl, thank you for bringing this powerful story to us.
This has been a spring of losses and endings and changes.
It’s getting to be a lot to handle at once.
The most difficult was Grandma’s death on March 22nd, just as spring began. We have been grateful for the support of family and friends and are especially grateful for the committal service that we were able to celebrate last week. There will continue to be a lot of work in the coming months – emotional work, certainly, but also physical work as we deal with the rest of the things she left behind and with decisions and paperwork that come with settling her financial affairs.
The week before Grandma’s committal, T and I were singing at the funeral of Father James, a loss that brings echoes of the loss of our parish years ago.
And just after we returned from the committal, we received news of the death of Paco’s only remaining sibling after years of decline with Alzheimer’s disease. He was the third of Paco’s siblings to die from Alzheimer’s as their father had; three other siblings died too young to have developed it. At 91, with no symptoms, Paco is well beyond the age when any of his affected family members developed them. Still, it is bittersweet to have lost all of his brothers and sisters.
There are other changes happening, too, with T moving home to job search after finishing her master’s degree and with continuing family medical issues.
Although it is difficult and stressful, I am okay.
Most of the time.
I do rely on family and friends for support. Recently, when I was feeling overwhelmed, I called my college roommate, just to talk things through. It helps so much. Another thing for which to be grateful.
Eleven years ago, I experienced another spring of loss – the death of my friend Angie, the loss of our long-time parish, and the final months of my father-in-law’s battle with cancer. The aftermath of these losses has continued through the following years and this spring’s losses echo and intensify them in complex ways.
I know that, despite the pain and difficulties, there is the opportunity to grow in wisdom, compassion, and strength in response.
I hope to do that.
Meanwhile, I am trying to be supportive of others and gentle with myself. I am trying not to feel guilty about all the things I am not doing as I would like, including blogging and poetry.
Personal growth can only help my poetry.
It’s possible that my blogging practice may evolve, too. I am spending nearly all my blogging time for now on writing. It feels strange not to be spending hours reading and commenting, but limits of time and brainpower make that the way things have to be. I had thought this would be a short-term mode of operation, but am discovering that this constellation of losses and new responsibilities is likely to cause some lasting re-organization of time, effort, and priorities.
I don’t know where the path will lead or how many other detours or derailments are in store. I remain profoundly grateful to all who are accompanying me along the way, whether personally or digitally.
Lorrie Sandel Lane and I met at Haven House at Smith College. She was the class following mine. She studied English and studio art, but has made her career as a painter.
We have some commonalities in our lives. Lorrie married a few weeks after I did and celebrated her 33rd wedding anniversary earlier this year, as B and I did. We both named our firstborn daughters Elizabeth. And we both turned rather unexpectedly to poetry in our fifties.
Today would have been my friend Angie‘s 65th birthday and I just sent a contribution to her memorial fund. In the brief note that I sent to her family, I noted that I can’t imagine that Angie would have “retired” because she was all about love and service and would not have stopped doing that. I am honoring her memory today and remembering her family and friends who have been without her physical presence for over ten years.
As it happens, two of my college friends lost their mothers this month, one unexpectedly and one after a long period of illness, so I am sending thoughts and prayers out to Sally and Tricia, their moms, and their families.
Two friends are dealing with a sudden medical emergency with their loved ones. One’s husband’s life was saved by emergency open heart surgery. The other’s asymptomatic brother was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer at his first screening colonoscopy at age 50. Both men are facing a long road to recovery and I am holding them and their whole families in thought and prayer as well.
Yesterday, I attended vigil mass at St. Joseph’s, which was the long-time church home of my friend Marcia, whom we lost to ovarian cancer several years ago. Last month was ovarian cancer awareness month, with several big fundraising events. There has been some progress in detection and treatment since Marcia died and I hope that the advances will help her descendants to lead long, healthy lives.
It’s a quiet Sunday morning. Soon, B and I will head up to Good Shepherd Village to visit Grandma, Nana, and Paco with an extra measure of thankfulness.
Warning: I haven’t been sleeping well, so rambling is upcoming.
I’ve done some posts about this being the tenth anniversary of some huge losses in my life, but today I am reflecting on a year ago.
Last September, I sang with the Smith College Alumnae Chorus for a choral homecoming weekend with Alice Parker. One of the posts I made afterward was about visiting the memorial tree for our friend Beth who died during our senior year and the chapel where I had spent so many hours. I had always intended to write another post about friendship and Smith women, but didn’t for reasons that will probably become clear later on in the post. I’m hoping to give a taste of that topic now…
I love to spend time with Smith women, especially back in Northampton. It is always special to me to see my roommate Mary with whom I share such a deep connection that we pick up conversation as though we weren’t a couple thousand miles apart the vast majority of the time.
I was blessed to renew ties with two women, each named Cathy, whom I had known during my Smith years, although they were in different class years so I didn’t know them as well. It may not come as a surprise that our best times for sharing revolved around food. Cathy R. invited us to a lovely farm-fresh al fresco lunch with her family who had travelled with her and we talked about farming and New England and family and medicine and art and photography and how some of us would have been at the Climate March in NYC that day if we hadn’t already committed to being at Smith for the weekend.
Cathy K. lives in the next town over from Northampton and invited us to her home after the concert for appetizers before going out to dinner. Her family owns a couple of local stores that sell specialty foods, wine, prepared foods, and more. Everything was so plentiful and delicious that we never did go on to dinner but spent hours eating, talking, laughing, and sharing. Family, education, politics, losses, music, career changes, hopes, the future, new directions. It is so seldom that one has an opportunity to discuss with such depth and breadth. I am profoundly grateful that being with Smith women so often leads to these heart-mind-and-soul-enriching conversations.
I was also grateful to have re-connected with Anne, who is a wonderful poet and who graciously accepted a copy of the chapbook I had assembled the prior year for a local contest, even though neither the individual poems nor my editing abilities were advanced enough to warrant doing so. She sent me valuable feedback and advice and has since looked over other poems for me. She is one of my poetry godmothers!
Now, a year later, the Alumnae Chorus is coming up on a deadline to sign up to tour in Cuba next July. And I can’t do it. Within this next year, both E and T plan to finish their master’s degrees and our travel time and resources need to go to supporting them. I also must admit that the thought of touring Cuba doesn’t really appeal to me, especially in the heat of late July. I am such a delicate flower that I would probably wilt!
And yesterday was Grandma’s (my mother-in-law) birthday. She has a problem with admitting her age so I won’t reveal it here, but this year was especially difficult for her because last year at this time we were in the throes of trying to determine what was wrong with her back. It turned out that an osteoporotic compression fracture in a vertebra led to its collapse and a long year of pain and complications and medications and therapy and ups and downs. Well, a lot more downs than ups.
Her elder son and his daughter came to visit for the weekend, which was nice, but it also was a reminder of how much she can’t do anymore. Grandma was trying to wish away the last year, which is painful to watch.
It’s also a reminder of how stressful the last year has been. Exhibit A: my outbreak of shingles last December. Lucky for you, I’m not going on to the rest of the exhibits. I am doing better with giving myself a bit more distance, but it is still sad and concerning and draining.
Especially in September.
I’m working on getting myself back into a better place. I actually managed to sleep a five hour stretch last night.