Thursday, May 7, 2015

Immersed in music

I love to travel. Peter loves to be at home. I knew it would be a challenge to plan a trip he might actually enjoy, but I really craved some time in a warmer climate, so I gave it a try. And I succeeded.

We decided I'd find a place where we could settle in and become part of a neighborhood for a week. We agreed on New Orleans, a well-loved destination we had visited several times, but not since Hurricane Katrina. We'd see how the city had recovered, but mostly we'd concentrate on music and food.

On our balcony, overlooking Frenchmen Street
With music as a focus, it made sense to stay in the Faubourg Marigny, a district just beyond the French Quarter, where a three-block section of Frenchmen Street has become the place to enjoy jazz and blues. On TripAdvisor.com, my go-to travel research site, I found housing choices ranging from elegant to slightly shabby, and then I hit gold: a rental apartment with big, airy rooms, 14-foot ceilings, and the most wonderful balcony overlooking the street. The second floor of an 1870s commercial building, it's been renovated to include a modern kitchen and bathroom, air conditioning (which we never needed), and lots of electrical outlets. It even has wifi, courtesy of the bicycle shop downstairs. The only downside: a flight of 28 stairs. Happily, Peter's knees cooperated and the stairs, while difficult, were not impossible.

Some people might see another downside. Frenchmen Street is much quieter than, say, Bourbon Street, but it is not quiet. There are at least seven music clubs just on the block where we stayed. We had Snug Harbor and dba on either side of us, and The Spotted Cat directly across the street. Spotted Cat brings on a new group every two hours between 4 p.m. and 2 a.m. weekdays and from 2 p.m. and 4 a.m. on weekends (which in New Orleans can stretch from Thursday through Monday). The way the club is set up, music sashays right out the front door and into the street...and directly into our home-away-from-home.

Some people who stay there use earplugs when they want to sleep. We just let the music wash over us. Hot jazz, cool jazz, funky jazz, Dixieland, blues--it became the soundtrack for our lives. We went to other venues, too, most notably Snug Harbor where we heard two especially fine concerts. Who could have known that Dick Hyman, whom Peter and I both remember from the 50s, can play jazz with such virtuosity at age 88? He appeared with a quartet headed by Evan Christopher, my new favorite clarinetist, and the entire show was an experience in perfection. Another night we heard a jazz band led by one of the Marsalis brothers. The room is tiny--the very definition of an intimate venue--and Snug Harbor audiences are attentive and respectful, as you want them to be when you've paid a handsome cover charge to hear some of the best in the business.

After the shows at Snug Harbor, we'd walk next door, climb the stairs, and once again sit on the balcony enjoying the scenery and the perfect weather. People up and down the street were having a good time. Those in The Spotted Cat were whooping, dancing, clapping, singing along--not only enjoying music but participating in it--and the energy was contagious.

We've been back several weeks now, and still when I hear any music at all, my ear homes in, eagerly paying attention to the interaction among instrumentalists. Also, I crave hearing live music--blues, jazz, rock, whatever--in small venues, something we haven't done much lately. I've begun to watch the listings in Saint Paul and Minneapolis so we can do more, without having to pack our suitcases. Meanwhile I'm listening to Evan Christopher on YouTube and am about to order a CD, or two or three. He's a wonderful performer and a great scholar of New Orleans jazz, which shows in his work. Hope you enjoy this sample.

I'll be back soon.

Monday, March 16, 2015

On turning six-times-twelve

Wednesday was my 72nd birthday. It's tempting to complain about such a big number, and about the aches and pains and extra medical appointments that seem to be a part of aging. But mostly I can accept my ailments as minor annoyances, and when I'm on good behavior I can try to manage them with sensible things like fruits and vegetables, exercise, and sunscreen. I used to joke that aging is "better than the alternative." My 58-year-old brother's death in January makes me very aware that it's no joke. I'm grateful to be alive.

Birthday flowers
We extended the birthday celebration over several days, as usual. On Tuesday, Peter and I saw the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It was not as good as its predecessor, but it was much better than the St. Paul Pioneer Press's review made it seem, and we enjoyed it even though we picked holes in the plot afterwards. Wednesday we had birthday treats with the grandkids (including special chocolate and butterscotch chip cookies from Abby), and all six of us went to Boca Chica, our favorite Mexican restaurant, for dinner. When we arrived the hostess asked whether we were "Peter and Nancy" and when we said yes she led us to a table with a large bouquet of flowers. This was very puzzling because we had not made a reservation! It turned out that our newly hired executive director at the carousel, who knew where we'd be, had sent them. I love that she did that, and that she is clearly a person who understands the value of "the grand gesture."

On Saturday Peter and I had lunch at our favorite special-occasion Italian restaurant, La Grolla on St. Paul's Selby Avenue. We arrived just after noon and for quite a while we were the only diners in a room designed to hold at least 40. We were glad to see the tables begin to fill later, because we'd hate to see the restaurant go out of business. As usual, we ordered enough food that we could just reheat the leftovers for dinner.

Birthday selfie
Spreading my birthday celebration over several days has a practical advantage. By the time the observances are over, I have grown accustomed to my new age. A couple of months ago, the idea of turning 72 sounded strange and harsh. Two weeks ago I still didn't like the sound of it. By now it's lost its strangeness. It's my age and I'm proud of it. And just for fun, here's a selfie I took on my birthday.



Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Being present in my own life

On December 31, I began a post about my resolution for 2015. But I was conflicted about it, so I waited. And waited.

A phrase took up residence in my brain: I want to inhabit my life more fully.

I may have seen this phrase in one of your posts; less busy-ness and more meaning have been big topics here and on Facebook, especially among women. I tried to put it into different words. I want to be more present in my own life. But the original phrase still speaks to me.

I love my life and all the opportunities it provides me. I'm not looking to change direction. But in the midst of winter doldrums, I felt as though my great life was going on without me. I was letting opportunities go by, spending time on escapes like computer games and sleeping a lot. My office was strewn with stuff that had accumulated for more than a year. My best energy was going into my continuing obligations to the carousel. Peter and the grandkids got a watered-down version of me. I got a watered-down version of me.

As the new year approached, part of me wanted to grab hold of my wandering attention and flagging energies by scheduling every day, assigning myself, say, an hour of housekeeping, 30 minutes of physical exercise, a few hours devoted to carousel responsibilities, and others to something new and fun.

But another part of me resisted. Life can't just be a series of tasks. What, I asked myself, is my most compelling priority? What single concept can provide focus and passion so that the daily activities will fall into place of their own accord? 

Just days into the new year I found that I could not have scheduled my life even if I'd tried. My youngest brother, David, had entered hospice care in mid-December, and January became all about finding the right days and times to visit, and about withdrawing into a cocoon after each visit to process what was happening. And then as I drove home one afternoon I began to experience terrible tooth pain. So now I was juggling pain and medications and dental visits, which were real enough for me but irrelevant and annoying as I strove to be present for my brother. At the end of January, he died. I will write much more about him another day, when I can focus just on him. But this post is about something I learned during the course of his final journey.

My time with David was rich and fulfilling, in large part because he was such a good, gentle, thoughtful person. But also because when I was there with him, I learned to be totally focused on him, totally present for him. As he grew weaker, his reality was right there in his room. Things we used to talk about--politics, the news of the day, stories from various parts of our lives--were no longer relevant. It had taken me a couple of visits to get the hang of it, but we both were in the moment.

Twice David told me about having night terrors, waking up with his heart pounding because he'd been fighting death. He said when he realized it was a dream there was a split second of relief, and then the realization that he really was dying. He had many good conversations with friends and family, but he never told anyone else about the dreams. I took that as a kind of gift, a sign that our visits were meaningful to him as they were to me.

After each visit I found myself exhausted. I think this was partly because I'm an introvert and partly because I was so sad. I would go off by myself to think back over everything we'd said, everything I'd learned, exactly how my brother had changed since the last visit. I had to take it all in, think about it, feel it, process it.

And one day I realized that I was doing just what I needed to do, and just what I had (sort of) resolved to do. I was present, in the moment, with a person I loved and who was my top priority right then. I was paying attention to him, and also to myself, to my responses. For the past couple of months, just when I'd thought I should get busy and get more things done, I have understood my limits and fed my need to be quiet and listen.

So that's my intention, not just for 2015 but for life. I will focus on inhabiting, or being present in, my own life. I want to be more aware, more in the moment, with the people I care about. I want to spend my time doing things that matter to me. I want to make use of the riches all around me, and that includes husband, family, friends, blogging, tap dancing, and so much more. And yes, it also includes napping from time to time.





Sunday, December 28, 2014

Mellow Christmas Moments...

It has been a lovely Christmas here, enjoyed all the more because Peter and I have learned (finally?) to relax, to make fewer and less elaborate plans, and to go with the flow and enjoy what comes.

The grandkids are the center of our attention, and sometimes their parents need to make adjustments in scheduling. Case in point: Augie was sick with the flu Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We still gathered at their house, but we delayed the start and kept things fairly low-key. Abby still made wonderful meals and Peter contributed a side dish and a pie, and we were grateful that we were all--even Augie--healthy enough to enjoy them.

Compared to other years, we seemed to go easy on gifts for the grands, or at least we didn't go as far overboard as usual. Abby and Eric's home gained 5,000 new Lego pieces on Thursday, but thankfully not all came from us. Our gifts to one another were both satisfying and modest, and we didn't have to stay up all night wrapping.

At one point I found myself watching part of the Christmas Eve Mass from St. Peter's in Rome. I grew up Catholic and I've avoided watching that Mass for years now, but this time I was drawn in by the music. As a teen and young adult, I played the organ for three different church choirs, and on this Christmas Eve I found myself singing along quietly with some of the Gregorian Chant. It didn't make me want to go back to church, but it did reach something deep inside. Memories of Christmases long ago, certainly, and of my family back then. And also the basic urge that humans feel to honor something greater than ourselves.

It's not that I've abandoned that urge; I've pursued it in lots of places and lots of ways. And it's been on my mind as I visit with my youngest brother David, who two weeks ago entered an assisted living and hospice facility.

In fact, this urge to honor something greater than ourselves reached out and tapped me on the shoulder while I was buying Christmas cards last week. It seemed to tell me to stop rushing around, to be mindful of others, to think about my priorities. Maybe it's just a silly card, and all those things were already in my head. But sometimes it takes a gentle hint to make me listen.

So, dear blog friends, I hope your holiday season is long and mellow and filled with sweet moments along with whatever harsh slices of reality elbow their way in. I hope as you review 2014 and look forward to 2015, you'll find love and enjoyment and fulfillment and deep pleasures that go way beyond the schedules and to-do lists that sometimes distract us from our real happiness.

As the card (created by Pamela Zagarenski with art by Daniel Ladinsky and produced by sacredbee) says:








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