Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Presents To Sooth Your Soul

Christmas is only two days away.  The shopping and wrapping is finished, baking done, and house decorated and cleaned.  It is time to nourish your weary body and enjoy a good Christmas story, inspiring DVD, and/or listen to some holiday stories and music.  I’m sure that you have your favorite, the ones you listen to each holiday.  Well, I have mine too and I’d like to share some of my favorites with you.  A few of these are old and in cassette format.  If you don’t know what an audio cassette is, you’ve missed out on some lovely entertainment.  You won’t find some of these on ITunes or GOOGLE Play, but they are so worth seeking out.

        In 1937 Glanville and Elizabeth Heisch wrote a Christmas story that remained immensely popular with children for about 25 years, The Cinnamon Bear.  Judy and Jimmy Barton’s adventures begin when they go up to the attic to get the family’s silver star tree topper.  The Crazy Quilt Dragon has stolen the star and the siblings must search through Maybeland with friend Paddy O’Cinnamon to recover the star.  The series, consisting of 26 episodes was later made into a 1950s TV serial.  It was made available in the 80’s in a 6 audio cassette package.  The Cinnamon Bear has always been a favorite story, one that fills me with memories of my childhood Christmases.

Another radio based treasure comes from a 1990s airing of “The Midnight Special” which was a weekly show broadcast on WFMT in Chicago.  One special Christmas piece has stayed with me all these years.  I call it “The Wonderfulest Christmas in the United States.”  If memory serves the story was told to Studs Turkel who passed it on, but it is originally a John Henry Faulks Christmas story of a young, poor Texas boy who tells a stranger of the Christmas he and his family had with their neighbors the Jacksons joining in.  There wasn’t much “Christmas” to go around in their town, but an organization was distributing some special food and treats to poor families.  The boy’s dad heard about it and went to see if it was true.  Sure enough he was able to get wonderful holiday treats for his family.  He asked his neighbor, Sam Jackson, whether or not he, too, had gotten some of the treats, but Sam said that he didn’t think that the bounty was meant for black folks, so he didn’t go into town with expectations.  The rest of the story reveals the joy the boy and the two families had making the ‘wonderfulest’ Christmas together, young boys laughing, mothers cooking and dads making a long table, covered with white sheets, that looked like it “belonged in a cathedral or somethin’”.  It is a simple story simply told about unbounded joy—something mostly lost today in our over-commercialized culture.  I don’t know if this is available anywhere, but seeking it out would be well worth the time.
Of course there are easier programs and music you can find.  I recommend Rick Steve’s European Christmas TV special.  This enjoyable program seeks out current, past, and pre-Christian holiday traditions in places like Norway, England, and other European venues.  Perry Como’s DVD Christmas Around the World is a delight, showing excerpts from Como’s Christmas specials in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Visit with the Boys’ Choir in Vienna, Colonial Williamsburg’s Town Crier, schoolchildren in Mexico, and other places.  The DVD concludes with a visit to Bethlehem.  Perry’s soothing voice and calm, pleasant manner make the compilation a special treat for my family’s holiday viewing.

Although audio cassettes are long gone from store shelves—for that matter store shelves are in short supply too—I have squirreled away a few favorites, having the equipment at hand on which to play the cassettes.  The Christmas titles include Carols from Many Lands by The Choir of Ely Cathedral, directed by Paul Trepte with organist David Price. It was purchased from Past Times an English Company that may have gone the way of store shelves.  The company used to publish a fabulous catalog and many hours were wistfully spent going through its pages.  My favorite seasonal cassette is not necessarily for the Holiday Season, but it is certainly inspirational.  In a 1986 Angel Records (Seraphim, Capitol Records, Inc.) Daniel Barenboim conducts The New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus in the finest performance of Bach’s Magnificat that I have ever heard. The reverse side isn’t bad either:  Bruckner’s Te Deum. 

            Some of my CD favorites include the more popular titles like The Glenn Miller Orchestra, In the Christmas Mood, Michael BublĂ©’s Christmas, a 2011 Reprise title, and a 1999 recording by The Irish Tenors, Home for Christmas.  In addition, we often listen to hubby’s favorite, The Very Best of Bing Crosby Christmas, 1999 MCA Records. Hubby is a sucker for Der Bingle.  We watch the White Christmas DVD so much that I have two copies.

Some less well known groups round out my favorite CD Christmas list.  Altramar Medieval Music Ensemble is an Indiana University group are a delight to listen to.  The ensemble specializes in “sharing historical repertory in the context of human experience…evoking the vibrant tapestry of medieval culture.”  Each piece is carefully researched, and beautifully performed on period instruments.  I have several Altramar CDs and they are wonderful.  Their two volumes of Iberian Gardens is outstanding, but for Christmas I love Nova Stella: A Medieval Italian Christmas, 1996 Dorian Discovery, Dorian Group, Ltd. 

Ensemble Galilei with or without Maggie Sansone is a favorite of mine.  Two of their Christmas titles are Ancient Noels with Maggie Sansone.  The CD features “traditional carols, medieval cantigas, and Renaissance dances (that) bring to life images of desert landscapes and stone monasteries where the Christmas spirit was born”  1993, Maggie’s Music.  A Winter’s Night: Christmas in the Great Hall features classic medieval and Renaissance carols from Galicia, Spain, Scotland, and Ireland as well as “original compositions to mark the winter solstice.”  It was produced by Maggie’s Music, 2001 and 2002. The first title features recorders, viola da gamba, Celtic harp, and hammered dulcimer.  The second adds pipes, oboe, tin whistle, flute, and Uilleann Pipes.  Kick back and enjoy!

What will I be listening to this Christmas Eve?  Right now I have Bach’s Magnificat playing on the stereo.  In a while, when hubby is asleep, I will re-enact my customary Christmas Eve activity which is to watch the 1951, black and white, version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol starring Alistar Sim.  Although I have access to the colorized version, it’s got to the the black and white tonight.

Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy New Year to all.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Gentle Woman Has Died

I did not know Suzanne well, only having had her pointed out to me when I arrived as a college freshman.  She was older than most of my classmates.  Her voice major nearly guaranteed that we would have few classes together.  Our schedules seldom coincided.

Suzanne, always pleasant, gentle, and Japanese, seemed exotic although she would have been bewildered to hear that.  Her low-keyed, unassuming demeanor ironically mirrored my own reticence.  Suzanne was a Hiroshima survivor.  My awe of her was subsumed by a sense of embarrassment. Political and military arguments aside, she and her family had been through a great ordeal.

It is now, after fifty years, that I begin to know Suzanne.  It is now that it is too late to have the honor of her friendship.  As our fiftieth college reunion approached each classmate was invited to write their own life story for a memory book. [Her words, between quotation marks, are taken from her memory book account.] The stories were honest and amazing, but few more so than Suzanne’s. 

Her exposure to music began in a centuries old cathedral after the bombing of her home city.  To ease the pain of loss and displacement, the Jesuits working in Hiroshima began an evening program of songs to which all were invited.  “…many people joined to sing together happily under the beautiful star lights.  Of course I always joined in…”

Suzanne tells us little of the loss and pain of those years, preferring to focus on her opportunities for education, musical training, and travel to Hawaii which was provided by an uncle who had immigrated to the Islands.  When she returned home to work as a secretary for the U.S. Navy she organized two choirs.  Good fortune followed her and she was invited to become a foreign student at Mt. St. Scholastica College to study voice and music.

Throughout her story, Suzanne pauses to celebrate her “unbelievable good luck” and her determination to “accomplish every moment of the chance.”  Her hard-won achievements and lasting friendships were gifts, blessings. Each opportunity was embraced gratefully, humbly, and fully. Each new challenge was met with energy and a determination to “accomplish every moment.”  Suzanne succeeded at all she attempted because she viewed each ‘lucky break’ as a gift she must make herself worthy of possessing.

After college, her odyssey brought her home where she found employment with an Italian company.  She helped set up their Japanese branch.  Her modesty is again apparent, “When I was asked, being a person who loved to take any chance even with foreseen difficulty, decided to agree.”  She was more than successful, working in her home country and attending exhibitions all around the world.  I imagine that she grew to know every sales engineer and manager in the company.  When she retired, Suzanne was honored with celebrations in Paris and Bologna, where friends invited her to re-settle.  How proud she was of the engraved gold medal she received! “The fourth one received since the establishment of the company.”  Yet she was humble, retaining her simplicity, viewing herself as a loyal employee and faithful friend.

Retirement meant many changes.  First on Suzanne’s agenda was to get a driver’s license at the age of 65, a “big surprise to every teacher.”  She needed to have one to better care for her aging mother—besides their home was “located up the hill.”  While several “youngsters” failed the course, Suzanne sailed through with flying colors!

For seven more years, Suzanne cared tenderly for her mother. She “tried to make her days enjoyable and happy.”  It was her privilege to do so, expressing great joy when her mother was baptized into the Catholic faith in 2002 on the fiftieth anniversary of Suzanne’s father’s conversion.  

Suzanne’s modestly lived life of service, peace, and happiness has not been blessed with good health. The seeds sown on August 6, 1945 sealed her fate even as it radiated hope within her young heart.  She fought several cancers, painful and unrelenting.  Yet each day that remained to her was a blessing.  Her younger sisters provided care and comfort in her last illnesses.  Suzanne’s last wish for her classmates was expressed, “Praying for you and your loved ones that utmost peaceful and happy days continue.”

Suzanne died this month surrounded by family, comforted by her faith, and grateful for her journey.

aDieu*, Suzanne.

*aDieu—where the center holds and the end folds into the beginning there is no such word as farewell. (P.L. Travers, What the Bee Knows)

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Is the Sky Really Bluer in New Mexico?

Entrance to the Taos Pueblo
The Three Sisters

Museum of International Folk Art - Bottle cap Rattlesnake

Last month my husband and I participated in a Road Scholar program in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  It was our third trip to the state and our second to Santa Fe.  I was especially eager to return to Santa Fe after having read Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. 

This was our first summer trip to New Mexico and I will have to admit that the extremely dry air and high temperatures were more of a challenge than they had been twenty years ago.  Santa Fe’s elevation is more than 7,000 feet so it took a few days to adjust.  Our program was active from the first, keeping me breathless for a while.   It was worth it because the beautiful New Mexican sky and landscape proved breathtaking.

There were so many things to fit into a week.  We hiked along the well-marked trails to see the ruins at the Bandelier National Monument, an area we had never visited before. Our trip continued on to nearby Los Alamos.  Security was tight at Los Alamos on this trip.  On our first visit we parked our car right in front of the Administration Center of the National Lab, and enjoyed a stroll through a wooded area with a generous female scientist who accompanied us to the entrance of the (old) Bradbury Museum.  This year some gates were closed to our bus and we found that the Museum had been “glitzed-up” and relocated to the city of Los Alamos. 

The journey north to Taos was a first for us.  Taos is a great place to visit and to live. Many artists, writers, and other cognoscenti lived near there for part of their lives, not the least of which was Georgia O’Keefe.  There are a couple of must dos if you go.  Plan to have lunch at Eske’s Brew Pub and Eatery just a couple of blocks off the Plaza—great food eaten al fresco! I can still taste the thirst quenching raspberry iced tea; my husband enjoyed a couple of their craft beers.

I am a bit of a book store snob and sure enough I found a really nice one in Taos in the John Dunn House Shops.  Moby Dickens, “A Real Bookstore,” fit the bill nicely.  Moby Dickens has a nice mix of new and used books, each title chosen with loving care by people who love reading and know what’s good.  The store features frequent guest author talks and a well-attended kids’ story program.  The staff is helpful, knowledgeable, and friendly.  Needless to say, I liberated a few books for my personal collection.

While in Taos we were able to visit the Taos Pueblo which remains untouched by modernity per the choice of its members. The Pueblo is a UNESCO Heritage site.  A personable young man from the Pueblo conducted us on a tour of some village sites.  When asked what the inhabitants do for cool showers, TV, or laundry facilities he smiled and suggested that they might just have family members outside the Pueblo proper with some of the necessities…

South of Santa Fe is the largest city in New Mexico, Albuquerque which, they tell us, has lost an “r” somewhere along the way.  We have visited this city twice before and can recommend the drive to the top of the Sandia Forest for a fantastic view of the city and surrounding area. I understand that there is a sky lift now, but I’ve had no experience with it.  We did have some experience with a great restaurant in the city though.  El Pinto Authentic New Mexican Restaurant serves a variety of excellently prepared Native, New Mexican and Mexican foods.  The open courtyard was a lovely place to dine.  As for culture the city’s museums are good. I especially liked the Natural History Museum and I have visited the Pueblo Cultural Center twice.

On the way back to Santa Fe we stopped in Bernalillo to visit the Coronado State Monument and ruins of the Kuaua Pueblo.  I enjoyed this place for two reasons, first there was a nascent garden demonstrating the Three Sisters method of planting that the ingenious Pueblos used for farming in this water-starved and nutrient poor area.  I love stuff like this!  The Pueblos were savvy farmers.  Their staple crop was corn but it leaches nutrients, especially nitrogen, out of the soil quickly depleting the ground.  They got around this problem by adding two other plants in groupings of all three plants.  They planted beans which used the corn stalk as a beanpole. Beans brought nitrogen back into the soil. They also planted squash which grew close to the ground shading the other plants and helping to retain moisture. The squash benefited from the nitrogen given back by the beans.  I have included a picture taken at Coronado showing the three sisters planted together as they would have been hundreds of years ago.

The second interesting feature of the State Monument was the Kuaua Mural Wall consisting of 15 panels of original murals excavated from one of the rectangular kivas at the ruins.  The docent explained the significance of the paintings to the ritual lives of the Pueblo inhabitants.  It was suggested that the paintings were used for a particular ceremony or season, erased, and another drawn in its place because of evidence of paintings underneath the ones found.

Lest you think I’m ignoring Santa Fe, I can recommend three of its museum that were new to me:  The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, The Museum of International Folk Art, and the Pablita Velarde Museum of Indian Women in the Arts.  As I mentioned my husband and I had visited Santa Fe before so we did the walking tour and visited the artists under the portico at the Governor’s Palace.  The shops are more like museums with extremely beautiful and costly merchandise—not my thing.  I am a sucker for folk museums (see the bottle cap rattlesnake photo) and I especially enjoyed the Shirone kite exhibit. It seems that once a year, in a particular Japanese town, the citizens create magnificent kites which they launch to do battle with other kites.  It’s a ruthless, high-flying game.  The kites vary in size but there were a couple of huge ones on display.  Apparently the winners are determined by how much kite string the team can capture.  The video was great fun!

If you wish to learn Pueblo history directly from the source, the Indian Arts and Culture museum does an admirable job covering the history and culture of Native Peoples in a beautiful building.  The Pablita Velarde contains a variety of crafts—pottery, weaving, painting—made my Native women.  One of my favorite artists was Helen Hardin, the daughter of Pablita Velarde.  Some of her sketches were displayed.  I was struck by her originality as well as what influenced her work. Some of the sketches cried out Pablo Picasso as the seed of inspiration.  This museum had a fantastic video on the creation of pottery within the family of a famous Pueblo potter. The entire process, from selecting the clay, molding it all by hand, incising the design, polishing the piece to perfection, and finally the firing, takes a very long time.  No wonder some of the native pottery costs many thousands of dollars!  
Flamenco at The Lodge

Lest you think it was all bus trip and museums, we had great fun and an excellent candlelight dinner at The Lodge of Santa Fe.  A flamenco troupe fresh from Spain entertained our group with some intense performances.  I’ve included a photo of the promotional sign.  The male and female principals were outstanding. The Lodge commands the hillside over Santa Fe, revealing not only the city but also the large Veterans’ Cemetery.  Santa Fe is the state capitol so it has the honor to have the cemetery.  So many, many white markers…

It was a great trip, well planned and executed by the Road Scholar people in Santa Fe. I would certainly recommend a trip to any and all of the places I’ve mentioned.  And, yes, the sky really IS bluer in New Mexico.  If you don’t believe it, book a trip soon.