Tag Archives: memoir

Memoir, Beethoven, and a Letter from a Friend

I wish you could trace a soul. Map it out, perhaps, like a musical score.

I wish I understood what gives me goose bumbs when I read aloud to kids or tear up every time I hear Chopin’s Fantasie in C # minor. I don’t understand why dimples on a child make me melt. Or how a few words written in just the right order can physically stir my insides.

My favorite books also do this.  A few nights ago I decided to read up on memoir. I was in tears over the challenge to plow through layers of my writing (and my life) to find truth and meaning.  It’s not a natural thing for us anymore, is it? To pull back on the layers of our life…to take time to reflect and notice? I much prefer to bask in the obvious beauty of my life. But our lives house layers upon layers of stories of failure and triumphs–feelings of every kind, from hurt and disappointment to hope and compassion.

And yet. These things are hidden by what we decide to notice– what we decide to tell.

As I was reading these challenging words, I got an announcement from a friend that after a year of planning to move away from the City, she is staying. Suffice it to say, her words were gut-wrenchingly honest and moving. As the gorgeous and reflective person she is, she had not only been brave enough to peel back layers to get to a beautiful, new level of truth, but she allowed herself to be guided by it.  Her heart called for honesty and she answered.

She was living the very heart of memoir. She took on the bravery I was not ready for.

Pulling back layers might mean tears or apologies… or disappointment. And that scares me.

In another life, I was a clarinetist with a dream of being a conductor. (Hardly anyone knows this about me  anymore.) When I was 17, I had the opportunity to conduct Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. I will never forget studying with my teacher on day 1 when he handed me the score for the first time. I had memorized all 4 movements and thought I was oh so ready for my session. I knew all the major cues. Cellos here, tympani there..  I thought I was really going to impress him.    What’s that old saying.. Pride goes before. . . what? That’s right.

I looked down at a BOOK of sheet music and instead of reading 1 line at a time as I was accustomed to doing, I had 23. TWENTY THREE individuals stories to make up what I heard in my head. I could no longer choose to notice, with biased ears, the clarinet solos and familiar bits. I was forced to pay attention to the other parts. As it turns out, that clarinet solo at the end of the second movement would be NOTHING without the back and forth singing fugue coming from the strings. Before seeing the score (and the dozens of other parts and lines… stories… of the other instruments), my ears had heard what they wanted. I had only been focusing on the obvious melodies. I had no idea what was hidden beneath.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the beauty came from all of it. In fact, it depended on all of it. (*I see this even more now when I get out an old piece of music and try to play it with no piano accompanist or orchestra to help!)

I often think in analogies but I am just now realizing how much our lives are like a musical score, filled with not just 1 melody, but dozens…maybe even 23! lines and parts, all with different timbres and dynamics. Some come and go. Some repeat. And some last only a brief moment. But they are part of 1 whole that is US.

Conductors have no choice. They have to notice all the hidden parts. They must know them intimately to understand the true beauty of a piece.    Us? We have a choice every time we pick up a pen (or type on a keyboard).  How many times are we satisfied by paying attention to the obvious? The sad part is, it yields decent writing that we’re o.k. with. But where’s the beauty in that? Really.

Beauty lies in risk and the risk lies in what’s deeper. My friend and my book (and Beethoven) have shown me the power in this…  the freedom for ourselves and the connection it builds with others who are also waiting to say the unsaid.

I think we (I) need to let my heart to give in to itself and and peek at the layers of truth that hide oh so well. I need to be brave like my friend and let it change me.

Thirty might be one of my favorite recent pieces.  From afar, it’s vulnerable. But  the conductor, writer, and beauty chaser in me (yes, I’m a dork) know exactly what I must do now.

Thank you, Memoir.. Thank you, Beethoven.. Thank you dear, brave friend.


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In Beauty it is Finished

In 9 more days, I will no longer be a teacher in the South Bronx.

I’m not sure what to do with that. I’m not sure how to say goodbye to a classroom that I’ve spent more time in than my NYC apartment. I’m not sure how to say goodbye to the colleagues and friends  who have made me laugh (oh have they made me laugh) and have been there for my cries. I’m not sure how to say goodbye to a year where I was not my best.

As a kid (ok,and even now) I can’t leave something if I’m not on top. I can’t stop a game if I’m loosing.I can’t go inside unless I make the last basket (and I will stay until I do) and I can’t go to bed after watching a sad movie. (I turn on The Office and fall asleep to that. No lie.) I simply cannot end when I’m down. I’m not sure how it works with my heart.

Speaking of heart, mine is currently being broken by  Trail of Crumbs, a memoir by Kim Sunee. It is a written journey of hunger, love, and her search for a sense of home. My only problem has been that the beautiful narrative is often interrupted by recipes for French cuisine. It annoyed me. Until yesterday.

As a teacher of reading, I tell my students to always look at the little things that may later be a crucial part of the story.  I hadn’t even considered this!  If Kim Sunee can build sentences that overwhelm my soul, then I have to believe she  hasn’t placed these recipes in for mere garnish. So, I thumbed through the recipes trying to imagine what they might be telling me. It took 2 seconds. This is what I found:

1. Cook first 4 ingredients…set aside and let cool.

2. Beat sour creme mixture…

3. Punch dough down and divide in half…

4. Roll each dough rectangle…

5.  Bake, uncovered. . .     Let cool. . .

So what did I find?     My last year of life in a nutshell.

Beat…Punch… Roll… These words have a familiar ring in my heart because it, too, has been beaten, punched, and rolled over.

Ending a year where I’ve felt more failure than success is a hard year to end. I’ve even found myself building last-minute relationships with kids in my school who aren’t even my students. Is it a selfish attempt to make 1 more difference?  To make up for what I didn’t do for others while I still had a chance? Maybe.  I suppose I’m trying to wring out what’s left of myself in hopes that some good will come.

But this oddly placed recipe reminds me of something.  After the beating, rolling, punching, and extreme heat, you’re left with a beautiful and pleasing result.  It’s all part of 1 whole. What comes before the end is necessary. I needed this year to teach me… to show me how to do what I thought I couldn’t.  To love kids who didn’t love me back.

Will I be ending “on top?”  No.  But I truly believe in some ways I’m still ending in some kind of beauty. And there is healing in that.

And so I end with a poem. It’s a healing song by the Navajo Indians.  So in my uncertainty of how to end a year, I end with the hope of the sense of restoration and beauty.

Restore my feet for me.
Restore my legs for me.
Restore my body for me.
Restore my mind for me.

You have taken it away for me.
Far off it has gone.
Happily I recover.
Happily my interior becomes cool.
Happily I go forth.
My interior feeling cool, may I walk.
No longer sore, may I walk.
Impervious to pain, may I walk.
With lively feeling may I walk.
As it used to be long ago, may I walk.
Happily may I walk.
Happily, with abundant dark clouds, may I walk.
Happily, with abundant showers, may I walk.
Happily, with abundant plants, may I walk.
Happily, on a trail of pollen, may I walk.
Happily may I walk.
Being as it used to be long ago, may I walk.
May it be beautiful before me
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
With it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty it is finished.


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