Wednesday, February 29, 2012

7. EX-tra, EX-tra

I guess today is and extra day.  It was explained to me once why this extra day exists, or why every three years the day is ex-ed, but I haven’t examined it closely and anyway, those kind of explanations exhaust my brain.  I’m not making excuses, (I think I thrive in a perplexed state).
Last night, at an extremely exciting neighborhood dinner we were exhorted to use this extra day to expand ourselves and do something good…something exciting, that we normally wouldn’t do. Something exceptional.
It’s been excruciating trying to come up with this, but I have decided to do something extra extraordinary… something that would exceed my expectations, and the expectations of those around me.   I will make an exception to the rule and have decided to…
EXERCISE (exclamation point)
To flex,  exert, expand, exhale.  That kind of stuff.
(Thinking about it makes me extremely tired.)
Exxxx- tremely!
I’m thinking this may be excessively extraordinary.
I think this exceeds extraordinary.
Maybe I should do something less extreme, but still unusual.

Maybe, instead, I’ll see if Dave wants to go to the...

How did you spend your extra day?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


THE WOMAN IN THIS PICTURE... Cindy. Cindy Gardner.  She lives up the street and around the corner. These are her lucky grand kids, and her husband Reed. Her house, Gram’s house, and ours make a triangle.  There’s something about the energy of that holy triangle that is eternal.  We’ve known and loved Cindy and Reed for decades now.  It’s a love that’s stood the test of time, heartache, devastating illness, belly-aching laughter and unspeakable joy.  They are not the only people in our lives to have shared these things.  But their lives have intersected with ours so much now that we have become woven into a fabric of friendship.  Family, really.  Before my computer could group names from my contact list, I put the letters “FAM’ before our family names, so I could access them in a cluster.  Reed and Cindy still have FAM before their names.  Her kids are my kids and my kids are hers.
Cindy is compassion and determination and devotion and faith personified.  She is as loving a person as you will ever meet, though you’d have to find that out yourself because she will not give you any self serving words of evidence.  You’d also have to know her pretty well to know the trials placed before her.  She will not tell you those, either.  She is dignified and humble.
            Once a young unwed mother was taken under Cindy’s wing (this happened many times. )  The small son of the girl was named Anthony, and he had the habit of calling Cindy “Cinny”.  So we now call her Cinny.  She cringes when people call her “Cin”. 

            “No one wants to be referred to as Sin,” she’ll say.
             Cinny knows us inside and out.  She is very devoted to my sisters and mom and more often than not when we stop in at Gram’s house there is some sort of deliciousness on their counter from Cinny. And she is loving and loyal to me, understanding my weaknesses and loving me regardless.  We’ve been through births and deaths, marriages and brokenness; BBQs and birthday bashes and baby blessings.  Our family gathered quietly on the Gardner's back porch while Reed lovingly shaved Cinny’s head when chemotherapy robbed her of her golden locks.  Then he handed her the razor so she could shave his own head.  Her tears rolled sweetly down the smoothe sympathetic skin of his head. Time worked with God and months later we were rubbing the palms of our hands over her scalp as the hair grew back, all soft and Fuzzy Wuzzy Bear-ish. We prayed mighty prayers of supplication when she lost herself in weariness, dragging her aching legs through the valley of the shadow of death.  She walked through and back up to the summit where she stands victorious and grateful.

            In 2001 Cinny travelled with us to England where we were performing an oratorio I had helped write, called Saints on the Seas.  Dave and our two youngest daughters, Kate and Annie, joined me for two weeks, We visited friends and performed solo concerts in Wales before the big shows in the British port cities of Liverpool, Hull and Portsmouth. Cinny flew over to England with my sisters Libby and Sherry and my mom, whom everyone calls Gram. We’ll call them the Ladies. Gram is in a wheel chair and Libby is her amazing caregiver.  They came a week later than we did and rented a van.  We connected in London.  Our paths wove in and out with each other, my professional obligations making our path slightly limited.  Apparently whenever the Ladies had a situation that required someone to run down the hall and get something, or to carry some bags from the van, Cinny volunteered. She is, after all, fit and willing.  Sherry or Libby commented to her that she was a darn good schlepper.  Cinny had not heard that word before, but she liked it, and they teasingly called her a schlep whenever they needed something.
            “Uh, Schlep, would you please run down to the ice machine and get us some ice?”  Or, “Excuse me Schlep, could you please run in and buy half a dozen scones?”  (Cinny says they lived on scones and apples all week. She thought they’d starve.  You have to know Cinny’s trim physique to find that funny.)
            One afternoon they were driving through the British hillsides and the car was quiet.  All of a sudden Cinny broke the silence with a question from the back seat:

            “What am I?  A Schmuck?”
            So now we call Cinny a Schmuck.

            Our beloved Schmuck.
            If you hear us calling her names and think us rude, you would be wrong. 
            It’s just the way love speaks.


            In that misty place of rising, when I am lifting out of a dream and into the waking world, the visions in my head become vivid. Short lived sometimes, disappearing like the steam rising from a pot of water. But sometimes they strangely remain, indelibly infused on my brain like the scene from a movie which has been left on pause too long on our LCD TV screen.  My dreams hover there in my brain, faintly visible under the moving pictures of the day, and they haunt me even when I’m fully awake. I found myself this morning walking along the edge of our driveway on Old Clairton Road in 1967. I am tiptoeing there still. 
            In order to build houses along most of the streets in southwestern PA, the natural God given lay of the land was chipped away to create semi-level spots on which to build dependable foundations,  The houses stack like giant steps along the rolling hills of our hometown, aptly named Pleasant Hills. Our driveway was unusual in that you could drive straight into the one car garage from the street.  Most houses had driveways that followed a sharp steep grade down to the back of the house where their garages tucked underneath their kitchens.  Instead, our driveway was up top, and we had a large basement that sprawled under the whole house, including our garage.  So the driveway had to be built up and there was a steep drop to the grassy side of our house from the edge of the driveway.  I searched Google Images for a representative picture to show you.  I typed in the words “Old Clairton Road”, and lo and behold up came our next door neighbors, the Kotsko’s, old house, listed on some real estate site a while back.
The red brick house next to the white painted one is ours.  You can see the wall of red brick below our driveway. 
            We used to walk along the edge of that driveway like it was a balance beam, our arms stretched straight out to our sides, our eyes keenly focused on where our feet were placed.  We were careful not to play night games around the driveway because the fall looked so painfully far from up there when you were 8 years old. And a fall in the dark is the worst nightmare. I only walked the edge of that structure when I could focus intently, in the light of day. When it wasn’t snowing or raining.  And when I was feeling brave.
            So early this morning, when I was rattled to my senses by the buzz of Dave’s razor, I wondered what I had been doing there at the old house.  I rose too quickly from the dream and never did get that figured out.  But I have been pondering the concept of edges the remainder of the day, in between guitar lessons and a few tidbits of the Nate Berkus show as I was fixing my salad for lunch.  Even then, when I was thinking of other things, edges kept showing up.  I lamented to our Girls With Guitars class that I had dropped my Taylor guitar during Thursday’s lessons and put a chink in the edge of the headstock.  And as my paring knife slipped through the piece of grilled chicken I sliced onto my salad, I pondered the blessing of a good sharp edge in the kitchen.
            Everywhere I looked, in fact, there was evidence of edges.  They define, visually, nearly everything around us.  We use words to describe things and they almost always start out talking about the shape between the edges:  “The room was rectangular.”  “The clock is round.”  Our most primitive pictures only show the edges.  Little child hands pick them out and imitate them with their dads’ pens on the back of the church program on Sunday mornings.  People and pets are reduced to thin black lines against plain white air. Here, for instance, is 3 year old Parker’s picture of his dad.  I transferred it to a chocolate cake for Johnny’s birthday. I used melted chocolate chips to draw it.
            Some people never outgrow the need for sharp edges on the things they know.  Life is one side or the other of a black sharpie marker.  Black or white and not much gray.  For others just about everything is drawn with the side of the pencil lead, smudged and shaded so you have to stand way back to see the shape, rendered is soft muted edges.  My Sarah learned to love watercolor because the water was a beautiful unknown that left to fate some portion of the final picture. She could push the paint with her brush and sometimes it would stop when she did and sometimes it would continue to bleed against the thick cold pressed paper made for watercolors.  That’s what made the medium so lovely: The mystery of the edge.
            I prefer, I suppose, the soft green edges of the fields and forests, and the pulsing, living edges of the beach at the cottage on Lake Huron. And yet I live in a world of cold hard edges that I have to deal with whether I want to or not. Sometimes I walk too carefully the edge of things for fear the fall to the side may be damaging or deadly, like the wall of my driveway. This isn’t necessarily evil, I know.  But it is limiting.  Perhaps it’s because I respect the damage that can be done by falling off some edges. 
 I reason with myself and my children that it is better to stay far away from many of them.
            I guess I would say that if I am going to allow myself to walk an edge, I’d better be sure the fall from it will not be too risky for my body or my soul. And when I do seek the buzz that edge walking offers, I hope I will have my wits about me enough to do it in the Light.

Monday, February 27, 2012


            Last week was one of those killer weeks, where I rushed from obligation to obligation…or shall I say opportunity to opportunity, and hardly breathed between them.  It was an intense week of songwriting, recording, tending, cooking for company, cleaning for company (there is a difference between general cooking and cleaning and doing the same for company), lesson planning and teaching, with a number of unexpected opportunities thrown in for good measure.  I actually pray gratitude prayers for each of those things I got to do, but stacking them on top of each other was so wearying I’ve ended up a wee bit grumpy. The kind of grump a good wad of caramel corn, chunk of chocolate or nice bowl of ice cream usually counterbalances, but alas…I am on the D.D. (d#@!* Diet) and I cannot even drown my sorrows.  So the grump prevails, I am sorry to say.

            But I digress.

            One of the sweet things about last week was that I got to spend Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat and Sunday with grandchildren, in differing places under varying circumstances. I am grateful that our children trust me with their kids, trust that I will love and nurture them, that I have the long term picture of them in the back of my head when we interact, and that when they have obligations that take them from their children they know they can call on us. Thursdays I tend the Merrill and Connors children from 8-4:30 then leave immediately to teach guitar classes.  It’s a long day. But with a recording deadline last Thursday night the kids ended up spending most of their day with Auntie Libby and Auntie Sherry and Gumpa, after his trial cancelled.  Friday, however, I got Calvin all to myself.  Calvin has those soft velvety cheeks that I cannot resist kissing and I find, when I have time, I like to hold him just because I have kisses that have been waiting to be spent.  He’s a funny little guy who likes to see what’s going on around him and would rather face out when you hold him than snuggle down and fall asleep.  

            It was time for his nap.  He’s taken lately to liking the spot in the entry hall between the old mirrored hall tree and the leaded glass of the side light windows by the front door.  So I fed him a bottle of milk Annie had left for him then I held him upright to let the air rise as we visited our spot in the entry hall. We waved at each other in the mirror, then took a few steps over to the doorway and he looked through the glass, the bevels bending the light and changing the pictures we saw out there in the wild: the clusters of trees and the car in the neighbors driveway, the sculpted cherubs in the flower garden and the birds flitting from branch to feeder to branch again.   We talked about what we saw.  Well, I guess I talked.  He listened.  I want him to know words; to love them like I do; to sense how they feel when they are strung together nicely.  So I talk to him even though he doesn’t talk back.  Finally, his breathing slowed to the point I knew it was time for his nap.  I usually put him in his crib and turn on his musical mobile.  For some reason though, I sat with him there by his crib in Gumpa’s study.  Sat in Gumpa’s big office chair and rocked back and forth, Calvin facing out.  I could not resist burying my nose in the soft warm folds of his neck and kissing those irresistible cheeks, so I turned him around and our eyes caught each other.  He looked in mine, and I gazed into his and the moment hovered hummingbird-like as I tried to hold still enough to not distract him.  Finally I laid his head in my elbow, drew him up and my head down until my lips met his ear and I started to sing.  Since I was hit in January with a nasty bug,  I have had rather distressed vocal cords and singing softly and sweetly has not been in the cards for me.  But miraculously there were little lullabies in the right key that let themselves eek out and into his ear.         

            When I was a young mother there was a sweet spot where my newly nourished babies rested their heads after nursing.  There between the breast and the neck, to the right of the chin.   After my babies grew it became the lonely spot. It was precisely there that Calvin graced me with his breath. His whisper of breath, exhaled from the satisfied place deep in his newly fed belly.  It smelled of mother’s milk, fresh and undigested, warmed and steamy passing through his luscious little lips. His breath laid against my skin soft and weightless, but profoundly present, like the lighting of a ladybug. He let me snuggle him and sing to him until he fell asleep.  I used all my strength to hold his sleeping weight there until my throat gave out and arms became painfully weary and my droopy eyes spoke to my responsible brain saying “You’d better put him safely in his crib before you drop him.”

I laid him carefully in his crib and returned to the chair, drifting off to a dreamy place for a few minutes.  In my dreams I went back to the place where I was small, maybe eight years old, and we had recently moved into our home on Old Clairton Road in Pleasant Hills PA.  The back yard was multi layered, full of flora on the edges, with patches of soft green grass spread out between the bushes and trees.  Playing back there one humid summer day I remember my first encounter with a ladybug.  I found her on the leaf of a flower.  I laid my fingers gently against the leaf, my fingers must have looked to her like a giant step stool.  She crawled right on, making her way to my wrist and up the soft sensitive skin of my forearm.  I remember being conscious of the sensation.  I knew she was there, and yet I could hardly feel her.  If my eyes had not told my brain there was a tiny red polka dotted creature walking across my flesh I might not have known it, though I could somehow feel her energy creating some sort of electrical reaction with my own energy.  That weightless walk was the tiptoeing of angels and it was magical to me. I have looked for and loved ladybugs since.  The folklore that ladybugs bring luck and prosperity when they are found only enhances their charm.

Calvin’s breath on my lonely spot was a ladybug moment.

Spinning deeper back in my memory bank I find myself sitting in the green leather recliner in the TV room, my legs useless and electric with the busyness of nerve against nerve causing them to jerk sporadically, my body worn out from the labor of healing from Guillain Barre Syndrome.  There was so little I could do.  Every ounce of me was worn down.  I was not myself.  In fact, looking back on it, I wonder if I have ever completely become myself again since then.  I’d gone from very active, purposeful, demanding daily life to day after day healing in my bed and my chair.  My sense of self plummeted.  I felt useless and downhearted.  The timing in my life made it all the more distressing as my youngest child was in her senior year of high school and would soon be flying the nest.  I was to have travelled with her and the other Viewmont Madrigals on a trip to New York City that April. They traveled without me.

Healing was slow and frustrating and I began to succumb to apathy.  Until Timothy came.  Sarah laid the little newborn body of my first grandchild in my arms and as the months passed while I sat there in  that healing chair, Timothy’s baby breath brushed daily against my lonely spot. Ladybug moments repeating until my nerves regrew and my energy began to renew.  Sarah had just completed her first year of medical school.  Timo would need to be held, and I needed to hold him. Our heartbeats became perfectly aligned.  My heart beats still with his.

             God, I decided, even in all our hectic busy lives, whispers to us in ladybug moments.  I wonder if he yearns for our breath to brush against his chest like I yearn to be held in his familiar arms? 

The other day as I was rubbing lotion on my legs after my morning shower, I looked down at the red solo cup one of the kids had used as a bath toy, sitting on the edge of our tub.  There, making her way around the rim of the cup, was a shiny red enamel polka dotted creature.  Slow and steady she went round and round.  An unexpected reminder on an unlikely winters day.
A whisper from heaven.  

He gives me ladybug moments.  

Friday, February 24, 2012


I finally…FINALLY…got to meet Stanley.  I’d heard of him and seen a few pics here and there, but quite by accident, when I was cleaning off the counter at my daughter Sarah’s house I found him peeking out from underneath Timothy’s Grade Two homework.  He came with a note on pale yellow paper, inviting Timothy to send him to someone he knew who might give him an adventure.  I asked Timo who he thought he would send Flat Stanley to. He immediately responded, “I’m sending him to you, Gummy.”  His answer was so immediate and matter of fact that I’m sure he was not just being diplomatic and trying to make me feel like I might have any sort of adventure in my life. But if he was being diplomatic then kudos to him for having the social grace.  I happily gave Stanley the seat next to me as I drove from their house in Herriman the 70 or so miles to my neck of the woods, up north here in Davis County, Utah. 

I’ve been working with Mark Robinette towards an impending deadline for a recording project, so Stan and I drove directly to the studio for a recording session. A late night one.  One that went till after midnight.  I thought we might as well give Stan a realistic picture of the glamorous life.  I’m really grateful Mark was not put off by the tag along I brought with me.  Bringing extras to a recording session is groovy only for rappers and rock stars.  Me, I try to keep the drama down in the studio when I’m doing a session and unless I need someone to be there, I usually fly solo. I must say Stanley was the perfect guest.  We never had to ask him to be quiet when the record button was lit.  He never interrupted our collaborations to ask if he could use the bathroom.  He was the perfect guest.  He went exactly where I suggested, and did exactly what he should, which more often than not was to just sit there and be quiet.

Why can’t more people be like Stanley?

I took a few pictures of Stanley’s first visit to the recording studio.  Wanna see them?

Here’s Stanley checking out the drum set.  He cleaned off his shoes before he danced on the snare.

Here’s the man checking out the keyboard we were composing on.

And here he is strumming each and every stringed instrument in the place.  (It took him quite a while.)

Stanley sat like a real gentleman while I sang.  This project involves a lot of children’s music for the Clytie Adams Dance Recital that’s coming up in June.  I think he really liked those kids songs, and I could sense he really wanted to try singing one himself.  So after I finished recording Teddy Bears Picnic I turned the mic over to him.  He didn’t sing very loud.  He was kind of shy. 
But I think he had fun.

 I'm really happy that Timo wanted Stanley to have a little adventure with me.  We had a great time.  And Stan isn't a bad singer, either...(though to be perfectly honest, he was a little flat.)



...was the tree in our front room this last Christmas.  It was one of five I bought to decorate the stage for my Holiday concerts.  It’s completely fake.  100 percent artificial, with a metal trunk and bushy metal branches that can be twisted and manipulated.  It’s perfectly symmetric; it tapers precisely as if it followed a plumb line to the ceiling and back. It looked great on stage, and it looks delightfully sparkly in our living room at night, those thousand points of light reflecting off the bell shaped windows cupped around it in the copper covered bay where my marble Eastlake table usually sits.  I dipped into the living room every night before bed just to look at the reflection of light, that thousand turning to 4,000 in a flash. It’s a dandy tree if you squint your eyes. Made for the night.

But you wouldn’t want to look close. It had not a single ornament. You wouldn’t want to do much more than glance in that direction as you moved toward the front door.  It’s all show.  That tree is full of itself and has little substance beyond that first glance stuff.

The real tree was in the family room, back by the rock fireplace, in front of the roman shades that are drawn to keep the sunlight from drying it out. The real tree is a real tree, selected with real intent on a freezing winter’s night down on Fort Lane in Layton where the Robinson Tree Farm has landed their truck and old RV for the last twenty plus Christmases.  Maybe thirty.  Maybe more.  I don’t know if we’ve ever bought a tree from anyone else since we moved to Utah, but sometimes I can’t remember very well that far back.  We pull up in our van, Gram at shotgun, and tuck our chilled hands into our pockets as we step between the aromatic rows of spruce, we look up and the children look down, picking up fragrant discs of trimmed trunks. They slip them into the muffs of their hoodies. We inhale the perfume of fresh cut pine and burning boughs that chug their smoke through that long stovepipe that rises from the trash can fire the Robinsons have burning up by the trailer. 

“How much for the wreaths?” I ask, knowing they are always on the other side of affordable in my head; knowing I will not bring myself to spend that much on something I can make myself.  And I always do…make them myself, with pine roping, but they’re never quite as pretty.  When David has lifted the selected tree off its thin metal base and carried it out to the van for Gram’s approval, we pay with cold green cash and tie the beauty to the roof.  There’s something magical about a vehicle with a Christmas tree tied atop.  Like a young woman pregnant…all hope and anticipation and potential.

We park our pregnant car in the driveway and David frees the tree, trims the branches, and carries it through the French doors on the back deck to the designated corner in our family room.  We toy, every year, with trying it in some other place, but alas, it winds up there where it was destined from the day this house was created.  David lies on the floor turning the screws on the red metal stand as I hold the trunk upright, stepping back now and again to check its straightness.  Last year straight was not in the design, for the inside didn’t quite match the outside and though the outline of the thing was somewhat balanced in the form of a triangle, the trunk was…shall we say…suffering from scoliosis.  No matter. Once the colored lights and strings of beads and shiny glass ornaments and real tin icicles were added, no one noticed the trunk.

Yes, the real tree was in the family room, where you could turn out all the overhead lights, get a blaze going in the fireplace, and lie on the old red couch with your head cradled in one of the green velvet pillows filled with soft goose down.  You could lie there and gaze for hours at the reflection of light on those glass ornaments; the old ones from World War II that have paper tops instead of metal because metal was used for war machinery.  You could make out the form of antique shapes in mercury glass, and little blue mittens worn by our children who outgrew them before their first birthdays.  You could search for little leather baby shoes strung by shoelaces thin as spider webs.  If you had good youthful vision you could look deep and find tickets to important events, like plays and concerts, and a backstage pass signed by Chris LeDoux when he first sang my song at the Delta Center.  The bubble lights would mesmerize until you drifted off to sleep, awaking to the whisper of the fire and the sparkle of tree light, the clock singing its longest song of the day, striking twelve times at the end of its tune.  You’d then rise from your warm nest and out the fire, then with a pinch of pause go ahead and click the button at the bottom of the tree that douses the light, thinking responsibly about the dangers of old true colored Christmas lights against wooden branches.  You’d turn your back to all of this and tiptoe to bed, trying with all your might to save the magic and not wake up too much before you crawled under the covers.

You had to move deep into the house to get to the real tree.  The one for show was easy to get to.  It sparkled all white and predictable-like there in the windows.  You could see it from the road and you would think,”Now that’s a fine elegant looking place”. 

But like I said, it is just a show and when the lights on that tree go out there is no warm cozy to take to bed, no trace of fragrance left in the nostrils.  Just a quick sigh of pretty, that’s all.  It sure likes itself in the mirrors of glass, though.

I have a theory about reflections, about light, and glass. It came to me one brilliant autumn evening when I stood long enough at the back windows to see the sun disappear.  Once the light was gone a strange shape began to appear in the window: bulbous and rather curious.  There against the backdrop of darkness all I saw was myself. 

But, oh my, with the proper light, the view out over the lake is breathtaking.  Gotta have light. 

Unless all you want to see is your own beauty.  Then you can go ahead and find your spot in the front room, where the fake tree sits at Christmas time, and you can gaze all you want, hoping that someone might stop in for a snip of a moment to take in your charms. 

You’d be better off in the real place, back by the fire, where good and happy people nestle into the soft leather couch and gaze at your strange beauty against the music of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, until sleep overcomes them.

I appreciate sparkle.  Truly, I’m a girl who loves glitter.  But sparkle only goes so deep.

Put me, instead, back by the fire.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


I know, it's not Ash Wednesday anymore.  But I am still wearing the same clothes and shoes I put on Wednesday morning, and I have not set foot in our bedroom since 8 am yesterday, so in my mind it is still Wednesday, even though it is in actuality nearly 2 am Thursday. 
So begins my annual Lenten sacrifice.  Which is why I am not at this moment in bed, resting up for by regular super packed Thursday.  Instead I am here at the keyboard, accessing that teeny tiny place in the left hand corner in the back of my brain where creative thought wraps itself around distant memory and tries to make sense of it.  The result is whatever winds up on this page, for good or for bad.  Perhaps only for therapy. we go with another self imposed quest for discipline of some sort. 
This year I am going to base my writings on the trigger of a picture, randomly chosen, either from my own collection of photographs or from cyberspace.  I'm trying to make each picture worth a thousand words, though when I did a quick word count on tonight's piece it ended up being something like 1300 words.  I must learn to whittle down.  I must learn.  I must learn!
Too weary to whittle tonight, so here goes:
Today's picture:


“Whatever happened to the alarm clock you gave me for Christmas?”

David leaned over his nightstand, trying to find a place to plug in his iPhone. He was the judge on call, and his iPhone is the vehicle for the e-warrants he often has to sign in the wee hours of the morning when the sheriff calls.  How far they have come in the last few years. It used to be the police would ring the doorbell in those darkest hours, and he would quickly pull on his trousers and try to act alert as he read and signed warrants in the hallway by the front door. Don’t criminals ever sleep?

Anyway, David’s new alarm clock was in my guitar bag. 
“Sorry Hun, I borrowed it cuz I needed the speakers to play a song on my iPhone for my guitar class.”
These days the music we awaken to is of our own choosing; stored in neat little categories on our iPods and mp3 players. I’m not sure that’s all for the better.

Someone once asked me who my musical influences were, and the most honest answer I could find was “1970’s radio.” The songs my deejays chose to play were my awakening, my inspiration, my reflection, and if they did not naturally speak my heart and mind then my heart and mind adjusted to their tongue.

October of my freshman year we had a contest at Thomas Jefferson High.  Whoever sold the most magazine subscriptions got to pick from a dandy list of prizes.  Being a natural born salesman, I took the task to heart and walked dutifully up and down the halls of all ten stories in our apartment building there on East Bruceton Road.  These were the same people for whom I had polished furniture and folded laundry, seeing that I also had an entrepreneurial spirit and was trying to earn my first pair of skis. So they took pity and ordered subscriptions to National Geographic and Consumer Reports and Readers Digest; enough so that I was the second highest salesperson in our class.  There was a large chart of prizes to choose from…a boat (well, actually it was a rubber raft), a leather coat, a bike, and other gear and gifts.  But one item caught my eye, and though it was probably worth one tenth of the cost of other items on the list, it was the only thing I really wanted…and I really, really wanted it. 

So one month later our class advisor handed me my prize in a cardboard box.  I found a private place and quiet moment in the hallway.  Set my books down and pulled the end out until the staple let loose, and there it was…my first electric clock radio.  I can close my eyes and see it now, feel the fullness in my chest, imagine myself running from the bus stop to the side door of our apartment building, bursting into apartment 101, straight back to our bedroom.  I pushed aside everything on the dresser corner next to my bed, slid the fleshy part of my forearm over the top of the dresser to clear the dust, shimmied the chest of drawers out a few inches to reach the outlet, and plugged it in.  The new fangled digital numbers flipped on a turntable rod behind the plastic face.  Each minute a number changed, the faint humming turn and click became the rhythm of my nights.  I aligned myself to that clock.  No tick tick ticking like the wind-ups of my childhood, just a steady hum and a click every 60 seconds, with a triple click straight up on the hour, like a whispered shuffling of cards.

Best of all was the magical, miraculous, fabulous ability it had to play music; my music, the music I wanted and no one else got to choose.  Thank goodness Libby had similar taste.  Either that or she didn’t dare express any other preference from the other side of the room. I had no idea how much the strains of music that emitted from that machine would effect my life forever more.  I mean, who would not awaken more sweetly than to Roberta Flack exhaling The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face? I brushed my hair to Bill Withers singing Lean On Me; slid the hangers back and forth on the closet rod looking for the right top for my hip hugger jeans to the Moody Blues vibe. My favorite song to wake up to was Me and Mrs. Jones, and though the lyric was insanely unrighteous I never did feel guilty about loving it. At night the soft glow of my clock radio light eased me out of my teenage angst, my head analyzing the lyric of American Pie, my cravings being filled by the harmonies of the Bee Gees and Bread; my poet heart feeling one with John Denver and Gordon Lightfoot and Don McLean, my newly calloused fingertips imitating the riffs in Stairway to Heaven.
My father had left when we moved into that apartment, one week before school started that year. We didn’t talk about it.  Just went on existing like nothing had happened; like we were ok.  I’m reminded of it when I babysit my 3 year old Ruby and she pretends she doesn’t care if I tell her “no, darling, you can’t have that”.  She’ll pretend she didn’t want the thing in the first place.  But I can see her lip quivering.  Still, she will not let me give her a hug until her heart is stilled and she turns her focus to the dolly in the corner. We pretended it didn’t hurt when Dad left.  At least I did.  I pretended there was not a big hole somewhere inside where no one could see.  Laid in my bed at night and could not breathe deep enough to fill it before it was time to exhale.

Somehow that space was filled; tenderly, angrily, fitfully, gently, slowly; by the songs that flowed from the speaker on the front of my faithful clock radio. The best prize I could have chosen.  Life changing choice some might have called a foolish waste of prize options. 

Four years later I unplugged that alarm clock and wrapped the cord around it.  Tucked it into the corner of my suitcase and plugged it back in in the dorm room at college out west in Utah. Disco was just coming of age at the time.  But so was I, and within three months I was engaged and my head was filled with all sorts of newness.  I played my own tunes on my own instrument, and kissed that handsome law student more than I probably should have.  My head made its own music then, not being awfully satisfied by the new pounding beats of late seventies pop tunes.  I casually listened to the Village People singing YMCA only on the way to class on the car stereo, and by 1978 the music I heard was in the wind up teddy bear in Johnny’s little yellow crib.  

But back there, in that little chunk of time behind the belly button of my lifetime, when I was new to the freedom of choice, I thank God for that old clock radio; for the dee jays who introduced me to some of the finest singer-songwriters America has produced; to the miraculous fact that I was born in a time when average teenage girls could even get their own clock radios.  I came of age in an age when music was first accessible to the masses.  We could all get it; the rich, the poor, the broken hearted and the thriving.  It would be years before I could afford a turntable of my own, and even when I inherited my brother’s I owned three albums; John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, and Carole King’s Tapestry.  Those albums changed my life, along with the LP’s from my brothers’ closets.  But truthfully, my best musical influence, besides the tender songs that entered my heart from my mother’s voice, was the assortment of tunes brought to me through the faithful low fi speaker on my very first clock radio.