The Neighbor

 

I rarely saw Bob these days, and I was okay with this. We had lived on the same street, a pleasant suburban cul-de-sac with 12 houses, for over 16 years now. He was not entirely unlikable. I just don’t think my family of five or my modern ways could merge with his archaic principles of what constituted good living. I imagined him judging our life from the grand piano perch in his picture window across the street. I was so worried about his silent opinions I did not know this past summer had been hard on him.

I was in line at the local grocery store before Thanksgiving with my nine-year-old daughter when he stepped in line behind me. I turned around to grab our supersized bag of potatoes when our eyes met.

Bob smiled and said, “Hello, how are you today?” This was the most pleasant his voice had ever sounded to me during our random interactions, or interpersonal collisions as I’d like to think of them sometimes, throughout the years.

I cleared my throat, “Great, just getting ready for Thanksgiving.”

“That’s quite the cartful you have there!” He was judging me.

“I have plenty of people to feed, Bob.” His eyes darkened ever so slightly. My daughter was now standing next to me with a gap-toothed smile wanting to intercede. She loved to be a part of every social interaction in which I desperately wanted to exit. Bob’s face lit up again. What came next was obligatory. I held back my eye roll.

“This is my little Luci. She is nine now.”

“Wow, you are lovely, Luci. I can’t believe how much time has snuck away from us.” He waved to my girl, and she waved back. I wish I could screen her thoughts before words come out of her mouth.

Luci cheerily chirped, “What’s your name, and how old are you? You seem old, very old.”

Even the cashier snorted. I was about to perform mommy cleanup for this threat level red “child who says whatever she wants” faux pas when Bob did me solid.

“I am old, so old that I stopped counting, little lady. I remember when your mom would walk you in a stroller during the spring and summer. Every so often, she would stop long enough for my wife and I to look at your beautiful little face and shock of ginger hair. You can call me Mr. Miller.”

Luci giggled. “Okay, Mr. Miller. Where is your wife?”

The air was suddenly sucked out of the grocery store, and I could imagine a rainstorm over Bob with the look that shadowed his face.

“She could not be here today unfortunately.” I softly reached for Luci’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. This had become our much-needed signal of recent days to not ask further questions of any human, animal, or inanimate object. She was smart and understood.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Miller.” Luci continued to smile, the air came back into the store, and we were right for now.

I finished up my order as Bob stood quietly behind us. I could not help but notice his meager grocery trip. It was a grocery order for one, something I had not seen since my days of being single in my early twenties. These days, I nearly needed a second cart. We exchanged the required farewells, and I only turned back once to see the light Luci shone upon Bob disappear as we neared the door.

That night, I shared the encounter with my husband.

“I saw Bob in the grocery store today.”

Dan rolled his eyes. “Did he issue a friendly suggestion that we clean up our leaves or buy a new roof? Or perhaps he asked for the thousandth time if we were going to replace our windows or siding.”

I chuckled. “No. He was different. He really liked Luci. He couldn’t believe how old she was.”

“Well, he is like Gandalf old. Maybe he could use some wizardry to clean our leaves up for us this year.” We had an early cold spell and snow. Nobody wanted to clean up the leaves at this point. Michigan could get to you like this, throwing two to three seasons at you in one week.

“That is not very nice, Dan. His wife was not with him, and his order was small and sad.”

“Maybe she couldn’t stand him either and had to go live in a home.”

“Or maybe she is sick or worse.”

Dan blinked rapidly as if I had made him nervous with my suggestion. “Well, let’s take a look.”

A short internet search later, and we were on the obituary page for Gladys Miller, beloved wife of Robert Miller. She had passed away this summer, July to be exact. I remember her as the stately elderly woman who donned a wide-brimmed sunhat and worked religiously in the Miller’s palace-like garden. I would stop every so often on walks with the kids or dogs to take it in and, if I was lucky, ask for a few tips for my own garden. Even messing about in dirt, Gladys looked fancy in a way that I could never hope to achieve. She was timeless. I was sad.

“I feel bad we didn’t know.” We had lived on this street for so long, it felt indecent not to know when a neighbor had passed. I sent no card. I visited no funeral home. It just happened, and my daughter awkwardly marked the occasion in a grocery store line.

“It wasn’t like we were close to them,” Dan said bringing me back to the moment. I love Dan because he is always trying to make me feel better about our messy life. I did not want to feel better about this though. I wanted to feel worse so I could be motivated to make it right. For now, we let it rest. He kissed my forehead and gave me a quick hug as he went back to cleaning our house for Thanksgiving festivities.

Thanksgiving was done, and our three children were excited by the buzz of the holidays. Luci was still our only generator of the myth of Santa. My teenage son and daughter now saw Christmas as the only time outside of their birthdays to ask for one hundred-dollar shoes or even bigger ticket items like phones and game systems. Despite their consumerism, Christmas was still fun.

Bob and his loss had quickly slipped my mind as I tried to keep up with our holiday family schedule, fueled by coffee and short runs in the bitter cold. It was exactly on one of these runs, light snow in the air, I saw Bob again. He was hanging an elaborate ball of white lights from his one expertly trimmed tree in the front yard. He was on a ladder. I waved as I ran by and smiled, trying to be more conscious of his loss and less conscious of his past judgment. He fell off the ladder as he smiled and waved back. I ran up on his lawn to help him, a form of trespassing on his perfect green carpet as we had discovered on occasion thanks to our kids.

“Bob, are you okay?” He looked bewildered, and he was grabbing at his arm. He shook his head no. I realized he had some blood on his head, too, possibly from hitting a metal container near his ladder. This was my fault for waving. Not only did my family irritate Bob’s sense of perfection throughout the years, I was now a danger to him. I called 911.

The emergency crew arrived quickly. No, I told them I was not his daughter, though I wondered why the daughter and son I knew he had never seemed to be around. Yes, he was on his own here as far as I knew. No, I did not have contact information for his family. Bob, coming to his senses a little, insisted that there was no one to contact. He became aggressive as they pushed him to disclose an emergency contact. I volunteered to stand in as the contact. Bob looked at me sheepishly at first, then grinned through his pain. I ran back home, grabbed my keys, and followed a few minutes behind the ambulance to the hospital leaving my family to wonder if I hit my head.

I waited forever in the emergency room. And after forever, I waited some more. I wanted the neighbor of the year award for this. I traveled through my memory banks of the last 16 years of living on Briarwood Court. I saw Bob as his younger self, a lawn farmer on the weekend and a lobbyist downtown during the week. He name-dropped to me on several occasions. I was Generation X, and I despised lobbyists. While I chose not to despise Bob as my neighbor, I can’t say that I chose to like him either. He was critical. He said rude things to Dan and me. He quipped at my young children to get off his lawn even though they were only touching the edge. Bob could annoy me from afar. Yet here I was being called up to his hospital room as he would have to stay for a surgical consult for a severely broken arm and observation for a concussion.

Bob smiled as I walked into the room. It was a warm smile which I assumed came from an IV full of painkillers.

I sat down by his bedside. He cut the silence with sincerity, “Thank you for taking care of me. I was just trying to hang a little Christmas décor.”

I felt like I, for once, needed to give Bob practical, unsolicited advice. It was part kindness, and three parts revenge for all of his advice giving through the years. “You really should ask for help. I feel partially responsible for waving at you, but you also should not be up there on your own.”

Bob blinked twice. “Well, I am on my own. I really don’t have a choice. I don’t know if you had heard. My dear Gladys passed away this past July. I wanted to tell you in the grocery store, but I did not want to make Luci sad.”

“Bob, I am so sorry. We did not know until the other day. After seeing you in the grocery store, I wondered. So, we did a quick search and found her obituary. I am so, so sorry we did not know.”

“It’s okay. We seem to leave this world a lot more quietly than we enter it. Also, while I am drugged and prone here, I guess we can get really honest. I sensed I was never one of your favorite people to start, so I did not expect you would be closely following the turns of my life.” Bob wound his lips up even further into what looked like a drug-induced super smile. I guess this was his form of a peace offering after dropping truth like a bomb.

“Well, now that you have put it out there, I always felt like nothing we could do would please you. We were always the last to clean up leaves and the most likely to step on your precious, perfect lawn. Seriously Bob, it looks like freshly laid, bright green carpet. You could be singlehandedly contaminating the water supply with pesticides.”

“Spoken like a true liberal of your generation, young lady.” We both laughed quietly, respectful, at first, of the hospital environment. I am not sure how I felt about being called young lady until I studied more closely the significant lines in Bob’s face and sadness in his eyes for the loss of Gladys. I was definitely young compared to him.

“Bob, where are your kids? Why didn’t you let the emergency crew call them? Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to be here to help. I just don’t understand.”

“Oh, I think you do. My kids are a little older than you. I have grandkids, too, four of them. My kids all moved away, and they choose not to come back now that their mother is gone.”

“I’m sorry to hear this.” My heart was beating rapidly. I could not handle the thought of my kids doing the same as they grew older. I was fidgeting now. Bob probably sensed my panic.

He continued, “I don’t think you need to worry. You are a good mother. I can see. Dan is a good father. I can also see this. I was too hard on my kids. I was too busy trying to be a power player downtown. I missed so much. And now, here you sit in their place. Thank you for being here. I don’t deserve it, but I am thankful.”

I was going to give Bob some credit. “You know, I think you had a valid point about the leaves killing the lawn if not cleaned up in a timely manner. Remember when we had an entire patch of lawn turn yellow from it?”

“How could I forget? You live directly across from me. It was hideous.” We threw caution aside and laughed generously, causing a nurse to sternly look in on us with her finger to her mouth.

“Bob, do you have anywhere to be for Christmas?” He did not. “We are gone Christmas day, but we would love to host you Christmas Eve. Even if you have surgery, I bet you will be out of here by then.”

Bob’s stern look, his natural resting face, tried to creep onto his face so he could turn me down. It shorted out though and a genuine look of joy won. “That would be wonderful. Please let me know what I could bring. As you have seen, I have some room in my shopping cart these days.” We laughed again. We laughed some more over the next couple of hours, sharing neighborhood stories and quips with each other. Bob could be lovely. I could be less dismissive of his old school ways. I returned home liking Bob in a way I never thought I could.

Bob died in his sleep that night. When I went to see him the next day, I learned his heart had simply stopped. We attended his funeral. I cried, surprising both Dan and me. A young family moved into Bob’s house in the new year, and in the spring, children’s toys and weeds littered his lawn, causing me to shake my head when I came out of my front door. I cleaned up my leaves as early as possible the following fall. Years down the road, Bob was right. My kids and eventually their kids, came to see us often. Every Christmas, I hung a ball of white lights on one of the three unkempt trees in my front yard. I had taken it off of Bob’s lawn after finding out he died. I knew in my heart he would want me to have it.

The Art of Learning Music

Hello. I am back after a break where I assisted in running a fabulous writing conference and completed two major work projects. During these events in my life, one thing remained consistent: my effort to learn music.

Through my full immersion into learning bluegrass banjo over the past year, followed by starting down the path to electric and classical guitar, I have learned more about myself as a person than ever before, including the following:

  1. I have a remarkable work ethic and a dogged desire to keep at something until I get it right, and
  2. I have a knack for finding the right people to be partners in my learning.

I am sure some people are born with a natural fluency for music, and they quickly find the right strings, keys, percussion points, and breaths of air to produce beautiful noise. I, on the other hand, liken my fingers finding the right strings and frets on my banjo and guitars to drunk giraffes (nice, longish fingers with decent nails) wandering the Serengeti aimlessly, eventually becoming entangled in the chaos. So, I have to work really hard at learning, and I rely heavily on daily practice and various resources to learn. There is an art to learning the art of music, and here are the mediums I use to learn.

I practice, on average, one hour a day. As often as I can, I try to increase this by a half hour to one hour or find moments in the day where I can pick up an instrument and perform one piece of music or an exercise (even scales) quickly between life’s activities. I use a metronome for a portion of all practices, and I touch all three instruments daily. It is my labor of love, and one I have been engaging in for nearly 365 days straight since 2/7/2015. Doing the math now, and I’m going to guess I have practiced between 450 and 500 hours. This would equate to me practicing for nearly 21 days straight at the high end if somebody locked me up and threw away the key, and I did not sleep or eat or etc. I am not planning on this by the way! Music is life, and you must live life to make music.

I also find time to read music theory books and relevant magazines and newsletters as well as watch YouTube performances or lessons to learn from those much more talented than me. I am never without tunes in my ear whether at work or play, and I study and listen to the greats for each instrument.

All of this is wonderful, filling my soul cup daily with bourbon, and I am making significant progress as a result of the effort and focus. There is something much more important than this though. I could not do this without the help and guidance of two talented, interesting, and dedicated instructors for helping me along the path to playing music beautifully.

Recently, I was given the gift of an interview with my classical guitar teacher, Roger Humphrey. I will be sharing his story, wit, and wisdom in a two part blog special starting tomorrow. I hope you will stay with me on this journey.

In the meantime, please check out Roger online:

http://www.rogerhumphrey.com/

https://www.facebook.com/RogerHumphreyClassicalGuitar/

http://rhumphrey223.blogspot.com/

 

 

Mourning Sir Bowie

There is not much I can say about the impact of David Bowie’s life on the music, art, and fashion worlds as most of it has already been said in the wake of his passing. I can share my personal experience of what he meant to me as a musician, a writer, and a person with artistic and quirky tendencies though.

I started listening to David Bowie’s music when I was nine years old. It was before the days where you could Google an artist or follow them on the web  and social media to find out everything you wanted to about them, whether truthful, exaggerated, or just plain wrong. I will even admit to watching Labyrinth more than once, entranced by everything about his presence. He created what he wanted. He dressed how he wanted. He acted how he wanted. To me, he did this in a bubble with little regard for convention or social norms. He was a hero to me not for his art, although I loved it, but rather for his passion and unique presence. He was not afraid to be who he was at a moment in time, and he rocked it.

I had insomnia when I picked up my phone to find David Bowie had left us. I had just listened to his new album on its release day and thought it was a beautiful, melancholy masterpiece, and I wondered who he was at this moment in time to make such an album. I now understand. He was the David Bowie about to leave us, and he was fully in charge of how he would do so even in the face of an unpredictable disease. His death was almost one year to the day I spent perusing the masterfully prepared art exhibit called David Bowie Is in Chicago on its last stop and last weekend before leaving the United States. This timing was not lost on me.

In mourning someone I have never met, I have learned Sir Bowie was not just an a person to me. He was an idea I could define myself, break convention, and determine a direction which was not in line with current practices or fads. David Bowie was living art recreating itself on the fly. He was change. He was color. Most importantly, he was an inspiration to many such as me who never quite fit in with the rest. He was an inspiration to not care about being a piece of the puzzle. Rather, he was the inspiration to create the puzzle and determine how you fit within your creation. As a result, I find myself today peacefully standing out from the herd, and this fuels my creation of novels, music,  and fashion which often delightfully stand out from the rest. I don’t do it for fame or money. I do it for the love of it much like I believe David Bowie did, and I will continue to do so in his honor. David Bowie Is Art.

Late is the New Early: Better Late than Never to Learn Music

blog post 2 pic

ACDC Thunderstruck Tab from electric guitar lesson this past Saturday and a guitar aerobics book I love.

 

I was just pondering on this snowy Sunday evening regarding my “late” start to  musical pursuits. I use the word late because this is what I heard many times over when I picked up my banjo and made my way down the bluegrass trail one year ago. It almost made me put the banjo back on a peg. I had people telling me children have a much easier time learning. I had others say it did not seem worthwhile if I could not do something with it. I am happy to say I was wise enough to employ a filter which has come with wisdom. And here is what my filter said…

Late is something you are when somebody assigns a time to an activity, and you arrive beyond this time. In my lifetime so far, I was late for parties (we could debate whether you are supposed to show on time). I was late for work. I was late for my period, and we all know where that led! I could not be late for my return to music-making because I was in charge of the arrival time. I own my time now more than ever, and I have assigned a sizable portion to learning music.

On the matter of children learning music more quickly, there is science to back the amazing capacity of a child’s mind to learn. I have a lot of noise in my life, and I have for sure altered my brain chemistry on occasion whether with medicine or a youthful & free night out. My brain still has amazing capacity though, and when I exercise it with music or reading or writing, I can feel it gain power. Our brains can still exercise as adults. Also, I would argue most of us have developed more discipline and passion for pursuing art and other challenging and/or relaxing activities. Finally, I find not having to balance intense schooling with other learning frees up brain waves for music.

On the final topic of what I will do with my music, I have little patience for this discussion. I learn and play music for the love of it. No matter what age you are and what you are pursing, if you are not starting from a place of love and passion, you are not giving your true self to the opportunity. The only goal I have right now is to love what I am doing and learn to do it well.

Late is the new early in my date book. I do not waste time thinking about why I did not start earlier or where I am going with music. I just pick up my instruments every day and learn to play better than I did the day before.

I want to leave you with three practical tips if you are down the same path, even further along than me, or if you are pondering a pursuit of passion on this very day:

  • Make sure you find time for the pursuit daily, even if for a few minutes,
  • Be rigid about practice time, giving what you can and maintaining focus during practice,
  • Find all resources (people, books, online) to help you learn more quickly, and
  • Tell your friends, family, and colleagues you would like their support, and what you are doing is important to your happiness.

Good luck. Shred it. Roll it. Pluck it. Play it. Do it.

Nice article to read:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/06/playing-an-instrument_n_4903835.html

 

 

 

The Novelist Musician

I have been a writer since I was a little girl. From plays to songs to poems to books, it was my favorite thing to do. In fact, I make a living from it today. I also had a passion for music though, and at one point, I found enough time to take piano lessons. There were not enough hours in the day for me to pursue both artistic paths to the level I wanted, so I kept writing through undergrad and two advanced degrees, and the piano became decoration until it was sold. I was still an avid music listener and concert attendee, and no moments passed where I was not exploring music in all of its forms. I just did not make it myself. Don’t lament! Let’s fast forward to one year ago.

I found myself finally landing in the career I wanted in January of 2014 after a disappointing (actually, downright terrible) fall. It had the right mix of challenge, writing, and life balance. I could breath. I was happy. Inside of me the desire to make music rested waiting for a spark and was no longer impeded by stress, lack of time, and sadness.

The spark was a simple visit to a local music store to browse. A banjo caught my eye. I don’t know why. They say instruments find you, and this one jumped off the peg into my arms. Of all forms of music, country and bluegrass were not forms I frequented on playlists or through purchases. I did sweet Jesus knows what with the banjo as I had nary a clue on how to play it, and it still made a beautiful, joyous sound. I went home, did some research, discovered Earl Scruggs and old school bluegrass. I also discovered the key of sweet, sweet open G. I bought a banjo and started lessons in February of 2014. I chose to learn Scruggs style which I will discuss more in a future post and became a bluegrass mama.

When I had about seven months of banjo under my belt, it did not take long for the guitar bug to bite me. I was crazy for strings, and I wanted to explore another instrument with a different range of sound. After much research and testing, I bought a Fender Telecaster with dual humbuckers and began electric lessons with my banjo instructor, who I am convinced could make a cardboard box with strings sound good.

This brings me to yesterday. I went to my first classical guitar lesson after receiving a Cordoba C5 nylon string guitar for Christmas. That’s right. I’m taking banjo, electric guitar, and classical guitar lessons. I practice all three every day, rain or shine, happy or sad, healthy or sick, calm or chaotic, and I take lessons twice a week. And, I am still writing novels with a plan to put the final polish on my current manuscript and find an agent in  2016.

I have risen to a level of dedication, study, and hard work where I am comfortable calling myself a novelist musician.  I plan to keep sharing the story of my journey here so I can marry my passions in one small place in the digital world. I will also share tips and resources for anyone looking to explore similar passions. I’m going to be honest about both my achievements and my opportunities for improvement (we won’t use the word failure here). I can be pretty damn funny at times, and I hope to meet some new people of all skill levels in these two wonderful realms of my life.

My ultimate goal is to convince people sitting on the fence regarding their passions to pursue them with vigor. I’m not the most talented novelist musician. I have a truck ton of passion though. I hope it lights your fire.