14 December 2009

Tacoma at 4 months

The transition from one side of the country to the other brings with it a change in landscape, in people and also in ourselves. Out East, when certain things dried up, I had to move on; I couldn't go back to doing anything the way I'd done it before, even if I'd wanted to. God wants to keep our lives interesting, perhaps, shutting doors behind us that we may not be willing to close ourselves. I wouldn't have thought to work as a substitute music teacher back there, or to play pass-the-hat venues; it would have felt "beneath me" [such limiting notions]. But out here, where everything feels new -- I regain some of that try-anything energy I had in my 20s. Engaging in some of the same activities I did then will probably take me in a different direction anyway because I am wiser now, more skilled and contented; a new region -- my first urban one in 20 years -- along with this being a new period in history, will yield different results, too. And I don't get judgmental looks from anyone either ["Really, still doing this at your age?"]

I've filled in for enough teachers that I already getting a better sense of the music education scene in this area than I had on the North Shore. Judging from the quality of the junior high choirs I've gotten to work with thus far, I'd hazard an opinion that singing has been better supported in Northwestern schools (and perhaps families) than what I saw back East. The St Leo's community has been quite welcoming, offering us a lot while showing lots of appreciation for what we each have to offer. When my mother visited, she was quite moved by the liturgies here, with their level of inclusion and participation. The two Jesuit priests [who generally prefer to have us address them by their first names] are a twinkling mix of warmth and intellect. While I haven't been involved in any of the ministries apart from music [Monica has me playing there quite a bit -- which might seem like nepotism, except that it has been so well received], we take pride in the St Leo's Food Connection -- which provides meals and groceries to the needy. Most recently, I have been rehearsing the children who will be playing strings and singing for Christmas. (I've also been getting to lead string ensembles as a sub -- wonderful children to work with all 'round). Here is a photo taken by one of the choir members.
St Leo's, taken by Beatrice

Much of the area strikes this easterner as a moon colony: many square miles of characterless chain stores bordered by sublime mountain ranges. Streets and roads are numbered far more often than they are named for something. If they take a rare turn, their number has to change to fit the scheme. Another thing I never saw back East, when a street's course is interrupted (by an industrial park or whatever) you'll find it pick up again with the same number, even if a mile further on. It's as though the whole place was crafted by an architect in a week, rather than reflect centuries of haphazard humanity. Were it not for the general level of friendliness, the technological infrastructure would make living here something out of 1984[remember when that was the future?]: trash picked up by mechanical arms, traffic violations issued by cameras. This time of year, the sun sets shortly after lunchtime. Seems that many of the people we meet arrived during the last generation from another part of the country, which must make for less xenophobia. Whatever the weather does, people tell me, you'll end up grateful when it doesn't rain 30 days in a row.

Although I need to secure more income for us to swing it here, we're doing our best to enjoy the moment and the people sharing it with us. Saw an impressive community production of "Guys & Dolls" and had the choir over for a pot-luck afterwards. I got them to sing through my Missa Nova -- the first time I've heard it from start to finish; bless them. Let me add that I treasure every moment spent with my sweet wife. While there are certainly places and people I miss from back East, there is already much I would miss about the NW were I to suddenly return.

15 October 2009

Tacoma at 2 months

rosy-fingered dawns over the Sound... unblemished Gatsby-era house, authentically unwinterized... keep having to buy many things we didn't have room to bring... still have to handle most of the domestic stuff... most everything one needs within 15 minutes' drive... free parking, easily found... hours consumed in change of residency, irreversible USPS mistake which has my mother's mail getting sent here along with other paperwork bogs... western people devote more time to having friends [postulate], encouraging us to do the same; seeing if we can start a meal group based on my Newburyport "Eating Collective" days... great Django-era Gypsy Quintet at the Mandolin Cafe... auto mechanic a block away; his wife does hair... interviews but no offers... working my way onto sub lists for nearby school systems... lots of appreciation for my playing at St Leo's... a great worship experience there... played yesterday for retired Sisters of St Francis... to be playing a Spanish house concert Sunday... working up duets with another guitarist... practicing piano... glad to see Monica and Noah thriving... trying to help Nat get his footing in the world... Pepe (cat) happier; the x-country drive seems to have made him more assertive; vet here has him on new insulin at a third the cost of that required by vet back east... missing folks and places, though appreciating the fresh start... hope you're not starved for pronouns... wondering where it all will lead...

07 August 2009

Birthday poem for my mother

To Mom, 8/6/09 (in 12/8)

This birthday brings us to the extent

Of this home's capacity for things.

(Even if only but ten percent

Of that housed at the Von Rosenvinge's).

Generations of Eckerts, Hamiltons, Steeles,

All here well-represented,

In photographs, keepsakes, aluminum wheels,

Obsolete or as yet un-invented.

How then shall we trace back to its beginning

This ancestral accumulation?

Who first had the thought that, instead of trimming,

Old possessions just change their location?

Even J. S. Bach, cleaning out his drawers,

Sought not to store in the basement;

For he simply accepted that all his great scores

Would be thrown away by his replacement.

But we who are mortal must put off till later

The disposal of our earthly goods.

And you who were matriarch must now be curator

Till we get ourselves out of the woods.

Your patience and kindness we might have deserved;

Though we haven't made all the right choices.

But there is no other mother we would have preferred,

Or who'd have shown greater joy in our voices.

21 July 2009

Summer 2009

1. Going with the flow
2. From East to West
3. Musical activities
4. Reflection: Pilgrimage

Calumet Lutheran Ministries
Freedom, NH

1. Going with the flow

"Now you are my friends" -- John 15:15

As I did last Summer, I write you from the utopia of Calumet, in the hermitage of Staff Trailer D. This is most likely the last newsletter I am sending out as a "bulk" e-mail. The hassles associated with maintaining a large mailing list -- such as losing contacts when their addresses change and my server preventing me from sending to the whole list at once -- prompt me (with the suggestion of my step-son Noah) to look at blogs and social networks. At first I uploaded all my archived writing to the blog space http://jeffrysteele.blogspot.com. Check that out if you'd like to see my past newsletters, articles and even birthday light verse. But I don't post frequently enough for it to be a proper blog meriting the elicitation of regular "followers".

More recently, I responded to an "invitation" to be someone's facebook "friend". It didn't take long for me to end up with a lot of "friends", turned up through facebook's raid of my address book, associations automatically generated by my profile, "friends in common" along with those who find me through similar means. While I haven't given time to exploring its potential -- or to be in touch with more than a few of these past friends & students, relatives, etc. -- facebook does seem like it could be more efficient way to be in communication with a large group of people at once. There looks to be a greater variety of people (and generations) represented than I had expected. I don't think I'll become one to post what I had for breakfast, or my mood that day, but I would like to share epistles such as these from time to time and perhaps performance alerts. While my e-mail inbox fills up with ads from retailers, petitions to be signed, donation requests and spam, facebook features the personal expressions of individual humans. We hold a particular fascination for other humans; the more I get to know others, the better I understand my own reasons for existing. So if you want to continue receiving my bi-annual newsletter, you will have to become (if you are not already) my "friend". (This also provides a chance for those of you who don't read it to opt out without having to take further action). I also welcome suggestions from those of you with more social networking experience; for example, how do I best group my "friends" by interest or by location, so that particular posts may be targeted to them?

2. From East to West

In a few weeks, I will be driving from Gloucester, MA to Tacoma, WA, towing a 10' cargo trailer, with Toby (dog) and Pepe (cat) as passengers. I hope not to repeat scenes from the movie "Wendy & Lucy" -- the independent film about a young woman and her dog attempting to drive West. "What prompts this move?" everyone asks (so I assume you would too). First off, Noah's dad moved to WA in recent years, and so Monica -- exploring ways to keep the two of them better connected -- responded to a job posting in Tacoma for Music & Liturgy Director at St Leo's Church (Jesuit). The latter replied enthusiastically (affirming my good taste in marriage partners), offering to fly her out and put her up in a hotel just to meet her (heck, all I had to do to meet her was show up at a local Memorial Day Picnic in 2000). So, in January, the three of us travelled there together. (My older step-son, Nat, in case you know him, was in the Air Force at the time -- a separate story I won't be going into). For this visit, we arranged for Noah to be interviewed at a (public) magnet school, the Tacoma School of the Arts. Not long after returning home, Monica was offered the job and some weeks later Noah was offered a slot at the school. Both situations look more workable than where they found themselves this past year.

As for me, I hope for that pioneering open-mindedness, ascribed to the West, to enhance my job prospects. Schools in New England, at least, seem to hold a fairly narrow definition of what constitutes a "music teacher"; someone such as myself may look risky to employers accustomed to resumes with fewer detours off the certificated music educator's path. I recall one principal stating frankly in an interview, "Hiring you would mean going outside the box for us." Though a teacher by birth, perhaps I am not meant to work in schools anymore; I did just get my WA music teacher certification, just in case. Maybe it's time to figure out where people need me most and start volunteering; the evening I passed in the Tacoma Public Library, for instance, I certainly saw a lot of need. I pray, therefore, for the gift of discernment.

I decided to buy this used cargo trailer off craigslist -- the size our Forester is rated to haul (though I worry I might have loaded it over the 2400 lb limit) -- after exploring the other moving options. It cost no more than what U-haul was charging to rent more-or-less the same trailer. One of the "Pods" cost twice as much, and you're still left with getting your car there. You have to ask yourself whether you're going to spend more getting something out there than you would to buy it in the new location. So I made the decision that whatever didn't fit in that trailer (apart from books to be mailed media rate) was not going -- intentionally forcing a purge of many years' accumulated stuff. We soon came to see why so many people, overwhelmed by this prospect, just pay to get everything moved. Even if we had wanted to, we didn't have time to organize the selling of anything apart from the LPs selected by my old friend Jack at Mystery Train. The nice family we found on craigslist to rent our Lanesville barn-home agreed to accommodate some of our furniture and, a pleasant surprise, our cat Cleo. But not having street frontage, and mostly rainy Spring days, limited what we could put out labeled "free". Most of the big pieces went to respondents to my craigslist Free Stuff listings. We watched gratefully as items we had purchased even a few years back went out the door -- never to be seen again -- each representing a link in the chain to our mooring. I must admit that we couldn't have done it without my mother helping us, feeding us and absorbing pieces into her home down the street. (OK, so we didn't manage a total purge!)

When it looked like many of our clothes were not going to fit -- and I didn't want to pay to mail them parcel post -- Monica suggested we also get a car-top carrier. So for $169 (delivered) from Amazon, I got us an extra 18 cubic feet. Assembly was required, however, and as I did not bring tools up here to NH, the Campground Manager loaned me some. As I started, one afternoon last week, a boy with nothing in particular to do appeared on his bike offering help (though he needed a fair amount of attention in return). "Well actually, I could use a wider screwdriver," I mused. He rides off and returns with one in hand -- 60-second turn-around time. Same thing when I needed an Allen wrench to adjust the roof rails (though this time he returned with a box containing about 100 Allen wrenches). I never got to meet his grandfather, the source of these tools, to thank him.

Monica arrived in Tacoma a few days ago, by air, starting her job and seeking housing. She's been so well looked after -- people from the church putting her up, showing her around, loaning her transportation -- she says she feels like Dorothy in Oz. We communicate mostly through Skype video conferencing (something else we learned from Noah). So far, she's loving it there.

In spite of the master plan, I didn't want to give up working at Calumet again, and Noah did not want to give up participating in the Leadership & Service program here. His dad, who flew out from WA, just picked him up in our Prius and they will share driving (Noah has his learner's permit) to Tacoma -- getting a car and a family member transported while providing them with an adventure together. I am living with Toby and Pepe here in the same trailer as last Summer; since I only had the cat here with me then, this arrangement gives them the practice hours co-existing in close quarters needed for the trip. On 8/1, we return to Gloucester from here to make final preparations and celebrate my mother's birthday. Setting out on 8/7, she will accompany us as far as Michigan. Most of my growing up took place there -- at Cranbrook School, where my father taught -- and I haven't seen it since he retired in 1980. From there, the animals and I continue onward, picking up I-90 and staying at KOA "kabins" mostly, spending nights in Middlebury, IN, Dell Boo, WI, Mitchell, SD, (Badlands Loop detour to) Philip, SD, Sheridan, WY, Deer Lodge, MT, and arriving in Tacoma the night of 8/15 -- barring the unforeseen. I imagine my mind will be on those pioneers for whom the trip westward was far more arduous; I honestly don't know how they managed without an iPod.

3. Musical activities

This past school year I regularly filled in for Monica at her two jobs, taking over the leading of student musicians for Sunday Worship at Merrimack College in the Spring, which was pretty fun. I did again have Fridays at Ford School in Lynn, MA (Metropolitan Opera Guild's Urban Voices Choral Initiative); and it was the best year ever. Both students and teachers were enthusiastic and grateful; I had good support from the principal; and I worked more purposefully on less material. Monica took photos when she came down to play piano accompaniments; and I assume, since I am not posting it for public access, that I might share one of me with most of Mrs Mitsiaris' third grade class. The front row did a "sailors dance" for our performance of the song "Dance Boatmen Dance"; the homeroom teacher is occluded to my right. I do hope my Lynn students also get the chance to go to a nice place over the Summer. [blogspot readers will not be able to view this image without becoming my facebook "friend"]

While Calumet does not come anywhere close to Ford School for diversity, the children are also a delight to work with. We on the Family Camp Program Staff offer a morning "Kids Fun Time" -- for which I do songs and Bible lesson -- along with other family worship and play activities throughout the day and evening. Three times a week I offer Music Time, in which I prepare various combinations of children and adults to perform informally. I collaborate with each pastor of the week for Morning Devotions and Thursday Night Vespers (on the beach). By the end of each week they feel like one of my siblings. In fact, the atmosphere is such that many of these guest families, seeing them as I do on a daily basis, become like my extended family members. The character of the Family Camp changes each week; this past week has produced the highest level of participation in worship and singing owing to it being when certain families chose to be here. I enjoy camaraderie with fellow staff, too. I also appreciate getting to collaborate with the Resident Camp (across the street) Music Leader, Judy, along with other accomplished musicians who float through. I gave a few recitals to maintain repertoire, and play for the whole-camp Sunday Worship -- which I understand is the largest Lutheran congregation in New England (in Summer, at least).

I actually began my first stint on the year at Calumet on Memorial Day Weekend, when I was Song Leader for a long weekend gathering on the theme "Love to Serve." Because the anthem I wrote for last Summer's Finale proved difficult for my choir that week, I wrote an easier one for this ["When Did We See You?"]. Looks like I've got folks to sing it here this week, too. Feel free to download it and try it with your choir; I would love any recording you happen to make of it.

Of interest to guitarists, I am having my Frank Hasselbacher guitar rebuilt by luthier Tom Knatt. I destroyed the top in a freak accident a couple of years ago (perhaps it's for the best Frank did not live to see that). Since we couldn't see moving with or storing this badly wounded instrument, we finally decided to invest in its recovery -- book it into the operating room, so to speak. Tom is making a top with a different bracing than I've had, to complement the other guitars in my collection (one of which he built some years ago), and making a new fingerboard scaled for the standard 65 cm string length (it took me nearly 20 years to realize that not only was the original 66 cm was too long for me, but that everyone else was playing a 65!).

Of interest to composers, I'm trying to get back to a piece I started last Fall for solo guitar (classical, electric pickup) with electronic effects. With the working title "The Thief of the Cross", it takes as its dramatic narrative ("program") the account in Luke leading up to the thief's request to be remembered in Jesus' Kingdom. The guitar's output goes via a firewire interface (usb would do) into a MacBook running Apple Logic. Eight signal processing "plug-ins" affect the guitar sound, though usually no more than two are active in any given moment. Standard notation scrolls by for the guitarist to play from in real time, while parameters for the signal processing are slaved to the same sequencer that is providing the notation. The plug-ins are either standard or freeware (my favorite being the Spectral DroneMaker), allowing the piece to migrate to other platforms. I hope that writing about it here will increase my commitment to complete it, even if what I end up calls for an alternative to the biblical program.

4. Reflection: Pilgrimage

I remember being 22, visiting New Quay in Wales because I wanted to see the place on which Dylan Thomas based Under Milkwood. Before coming across the cartoon in which a camera-laden tourist walks into a pub and one capped regular nudges two others, "Alright, whose turn is it to play I knew Dylan Thomas?", I myself walked into a pub and asked for Alistair McClean, who I had been told "comes into the Dolough every day at one o'clock" and who "knew Dylan Thomas." But rather than invite me for a pint, he dismissed me with, "Nothin' I could tell ya that ya couldn't read someplace." Had Thomas been sitting at the next table, I imagine he would have written this brief interaction into his script. Here I was bobbing for a souvenir of history, only to become a character in its ensuing course. For will not Dylan Thomas always be sitting at the next table of that seaside pub, outside of time, just as he was during WWII?

Making this move is like ascending a ridge from where I can survey the past and glimpse the future. In our push to empty the house, we'd each come across stuff we'd been saving for many years, through previous moves even, and ask, "Why?" It's often the small items you spend the most time deliberating over -- a birthday card that warmed my heart, a packet of letters from someone I corresponded with for a decade, photos that didn't make it into albums -- but what to do with them now seems the big question. It is the distinguishing between compost that enriches the soil and manure that mucks the soles -- between growing and burrowing. I was able to part with all my LPs because I took time to encode what I wanted to bring with me as digital files on my computer. But even then, aren't I "clinging to the past" by continuing to listen to them? . . .
"I need some lovin' like a body needs a soul.
I need some lovin' like a fastball needs control."
-- Iggy Pop

Not me, no! I came up with a professional rationalization by designing a course, referred to in my last newsletter, that uses mostly "boomer" music to teach theory and songwriting craft; the most positive development so far in my quest for work in WA is interest in that course by one community college.

Somewhat akin to the pull to go on pilgrimage to places great artists lived, is the pull to revisit places I lived in earlier decades. Just as I can walk around New Quay communing with Dylan Thomas, I can revisit walks I took at half my age and commune with the younger me. . . Walks I associate with times of closeness and isolation, wonder and disillusionment, inspiration and emptiness, confusion and epiphany -- what would I say in walking with him now? I sense that he's feeling that he let me down; so I need to be able to tell him he's doing just what he's supposed to be doing. I can be his angel, outside of time. I also appreciate the chance to measure my progress since these earlier times. Progress towards . . . towards . . . a realization of what progress actually means. If it isn't in music written, in professional reputation, in fees commanded, in achievements by biological children, in recording or publishing contracts, in audience size, or even in marriage stability . . . then it must be the slowly developing awareness of Divine perspective. You know, the reason certain things didn't work out the way you hoped while others snuck up from behind.

Walking away from Morning Devotions the other day, someone asked if the elderly gentleman singing with us was my father. In fact, he was the father of someone else there; my father passed away 11 years ago this month. I replied something like, "Well actually, my father was there. You just couldn't see him." I'm just remembering another move, 1990: Julia (my first wife) and I from Jamaica Plain to Turners Falls. I drove a U-haul truck and my father drove one of our cars right behind me. After every turn I'd check the rearview mirror and he was still there. As we crossed the bridge over the falls, I got choked up with the thought that he always would be.

As much as I'd like to go on pilgrimage to old MA haunts like Turners Falls or Newburyport before moving West, I probably won't get the chance. The visit to Cranbrook will be memory-stirring enough. The days I am at my mother's house before embarking will be spent fixing little things, finding places to put stuff (her balcony and our furnace room each look like one of those garages no one can park in anymore), pack it or dispose of it. Both she and our tenants have shown great patience. Looming is the question of who she can call for help with this and that when I'm no longer up the street. It assuages guilt to remember that she didn't bring me up to stagnate in my hometown.

As our shadows continue to roam in places we've lived and in the hearts of those we've known, so must traces of those places and shadows of those people shimmer on inside of us. Staff Trailer D is my temporary home, my refuge, easily moved into and out of. Many have lived there and many more will: waking from dreaming, making do without plumbing, listening to loon and whippoorwill and perhaps adding another stain. For my part, I will take with me the solace of solitude when I go. The home my body provides me on earth at this period in time is also temporary, provided through God's grace. May my spirit shimmer on in NH, MI and MA when I am in WA; and may the spirit of those places, and those met there, accompany me for the final journey. And so I ask you to pray for all who are affected by this transition of ours, just as we all pray for those who lack the privilege or support that would enable them to make such a move.

04 March 2009

To my wife on her birthday

When first we met

You were a mere forty-seven,

Raising two boys

At eleven-eleven.

You thought you had reached

The end of your game;

Not predisposed

To meet your next flame.

Yet by the time

You reached forty-eight

We’d done “Gift of Vision”,

Set our wedding date,

Repaired the roof

(To keep out the pigeons)

And started a process

To change my religion.

At age forty-nine

Little time for renewel

Each day sending off

Three boys to school.

Come to age fifty

What happened then?

If I could remember

I’d be young again

But it isn’t our memories

Starting to fail

With more years to archive

Deluge of detail.

But here I must stop

For now we are late

Happy fifty-seventh

Heaven will wait.