Sparking joy: a viola to cherish

This is my official post, about a single cherished object, for The Cherished Blogfest.

Family Portrait
Family Portrait

While I was decluttering in preparation for the move, people told me about “that book.” You know, the one on the best-seller list. Only keep things that “spark joy.” This process is supposed to be liberating, focusing your mind on what’s most important. Sounds great.

But then, there’s my violin: the violin that spent years in the back of various closets, from Princeton to Palo Alto to Pasadena. I was asked, more than once, “are you ever going to play that thing again? Why don’t you get rid of it?”

This was not an unreasonable question. I was in graduate school, getting my PhD in neuroscience. Perhaps more relevant, the violin did not spark joy. I’d had bad experiences in college—a failed audition for the university orchestra, followed by a flood of shame about both the failure and my emotional response to it. In my mind, I had not only failed, but had been so lacking in resilience, that I’d let it crush my spirit. Maybe decluttering the violin would have been the sane, humane, thing to do.

Instead, years later, I found myself living alone in my own apartment after breaking off an engagement. The violin re-emerged in the move and this time, it sparked something different: hope. I took it to a repair shop where it was restored to playing condition. I bought it a new, high-quality case. And I started taking lessons again. I found a group to play in that didn’t require auditions. And the joy was back. Not just like that. There may have been a spark somewhere, but it took serious effort to rekindle the joy. That joy lasted me through my postdoc up to the birth of my two children. But the violin went back into the closet when they were babies and toddlers.

When I started playing again most recently, I decided to try something new: the viola. A viola is a lot like a violin, but larger, tuned a fifth lower, and with a richer, darker sound. When I picked up a viola for the first time, it was both an old friend and a fresh start: no baggage, no failure and shame. Nothing to lose.

Playing the viola at the Farmers' Market
Playing the viola at the Farmers’ Market

Early on in my viola “career,” I had another unsuccessful audition for an orchestra. But this time I chalked it up to experience, and found another group to play in. I met people and formed a string quartet. I made new opportunities for myself. And then, through playing the viola, I was led back to the violin, now feeling comfortable on both instruments and able to switch back and forth between them as needed.

So, which do I cherish more? I’d rather not have to decide. If I hadn’t kept that violin, I probably would never have bothered again. I am grateful that I didn’t declutter it. But since I have to pick just one, I’ve chosen the viola. It helped me find my voice, and rekindle the joy for good.

Playing my viola in Boston's Symphony Hall, with the Onstage at Symphony program for adult amateurs
Playing my viola in Boston’s Symphony Hall, with the Onstage at Symphony program for adult amateurs

The Cherished Blogfest

So many new things are happening right now for me: new state, new house, new colleagues, new orchestra. And, on my relatively new blog, a blogfest. What is a blogfest? Well, that’s what I want to find out.  It’s certainly new to me.

The Cherished Blogfest Badge

Bloggers participating in this blogfest are writing 500 words about the most cherished object in their possession, and visiting the other participants’ blogs. The Cherished Blogfest is hosted by Dan AntionDamyanti Biswas, Paul Ruddock, Peter Nena, and Sharukh Bamboat.

I have had a lot of time to think about this question (and in a unique way) over the past several weeks, because I have been doing major decluttering, getting rid of possessions in preparation for a cross-country move.

My old Nancy Drew collection
Martial Arts Equipment
The Bitty Twins
BoB TV timer

I realized that it was going to be hard to pick just one thing, and that I cherished a lot of things. So it was important to me to find them good homes.

But now that we’re down to the end, to the empty house, what did I keep? What will I carry with me on the plane, being unwilling to be without it for the time it takes the moving van to drive from Boston to California?

Not surprisingly, the answer is, my viola! Since I have to say it in 500 words, I’ll write the official post next.

Golden Age

Everyone says that decluttering is supposed to be therapeutic. So why don’t I feel that way? Instead of experiencing the “life-changing magic of tidying up,” I feel like telling Marie Kondo to go stuff it.

There have been some fun, bright spots in the odyssey to divest myself of possessions that I won’t need in CA: the mother/daughter pair who came to get my freecycled collection of vintage Nancy Drew books; the friendliness of the workers at the Hazardous Waste Drop-off (cheerfully taking bleach, paint thinner, burned out CFLs, and no-longer-rechargeable batteries off my hands); the little boy who picked out a new toy car and little girl who fell in love with an artisanal stuffed bunny made out of soft alpaca fur. The prospect of new kids rummaging through an old tub of Barbies and again putting beautiful dresses and little shoes on their funny-looking plastic bodies and feet. Watching the kid I gave an old Connect 4 game to play it over and over with his friend and his mother. I even learned something about landscaping: one woman came to take large old cardboard boxes because she’s using them to cover over and redo her yard, kill weeds, and put fresh soil on top. The processes and interactions that I dread are invariably not as bad as I have made them out to be in the anxious hours between 4 and 5 am. Even disposing of a recalled de-humidifier and getting a check for it looks like it will be relatively straightforward (although it will cost $20 of that check to be environmentally responsible about the disposal).

We went to Boston’s Museum of Science yesterday, a last visit to see a couple of cool things they had on exhibit: the Science of Pixar, Exploring Pluto, and a movie about living in the Age of Airplanes. It was intended as a nice break from moving, and in many ways it was, but the Pixar exhibit also brought me face-to-face with the endless supply of junky plastic movie-tie in toys that I’ve been dealing with over the past weeks.


We haven’t bought a Happy Meal or equivalent in a long time, but the plastic lives on, and there’s something unseemly about the durability, complexity, and ubiquity of the toys. They’re in the basement. They’re in the playroom. They’re in the attic. They’re in tubs and drawers and toy organizers, in bowls and on shelves. Many of these toys are strange creatures or contraptions of one kind of another: body-less heads with big neotenous eyes and open mouths, silly expressions, crazy hair, wild colors. At the Pixar exhibit, you can see exactly how those expressions were designed, made and realized, and even make some yourself. There are complex mathematical and engineering equations describing curly hair, and cheese, and the trajectory of a waving elastic arm. A group of earnest, diverse, interesting people show up on screens labeled “Working at Pixar” to tell visitors about their jobs and how much they love those jobs. These jobs are mainly about pixels and films, animated characters and virtual lighting, but It’s brought home to me that designing those toys must be somebody’s job too, and so is actually making the physical objects. And somehow, because of that, it feels like these toys, junky and ridiculous and missing parts though they may be, deserve a better fate.

I didn’t know what to expect from the IMAX movie, called Airplanes: A World in Flight. As museum members, we had free tickets that we needed to use up, and this movie was showing when we were available, so we went. It turns out that the movie makes a compelling case for how aviation brings us closer together, makes our world smaller, and enhances cultural understanding. “Every age is a golden age,” Han Solo’s voice tells us. “Appreciate the age you live in.” The movie is interspersed with gorgeous pictures of the African Savannah, of Rome, of Las Vegas, and it ends with our future home: the San Francisco Bay area, the City, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, blazingly lit up at night, planes flying overhead, music from James Horner. It’s a beautiful movie, hopeful and optimistic, showing us lovingly and at length the goldenness of our age. Typical for me, I teared up at the ending, which shows a family greeting each other as one of them gets off a plane in the SFO airport, coming home to loved ones from a time away.

The film also had a section on flowers from Kenya being delivered to Alaska by plane. The script followed these flowers from initial cutting to vase on someone’s table in Anchorage. Planes make this kind of thing possible too, and while the movie was careful to maintain a positive tone, I was kind of appalled. These flowers only live 14 days from cutting. All the work, the fuel, the resources spent to fly them to Alaska where, in less than two weeks, they’ll be compost. This kind of thing happens with food, too, and is often discussed negatively: instead of eating out-of-season foods flown or trucked in from halfway across the world, people are told they should eat locally-produced foods bought at farmers’ markets. It’s better for the planet, and for your health. Coming from where I’ve been for the past month, awash in “stuff” that was probably shipped in from another continent and that I would have been better off without, I’m predisposed to think this way. I tear up often these days; it’s embarrassing.

What’s especially hard to understand and process, for my little brain, is what to do with this information now that I have it. Perhaps my tears are about something more than missing Boston. I read an article this morning, shared by a distant friend on Facebook: The Great Grief: How to Cope with Losing our World.  “The notion that our individual grief and emotional loss can actually be a reaction to the decline of our air, water, and ecology rarely appears in conversation or the media . . . It is as if this topic is not supposed to be publicly discussed.”  I can try to buy flowers locally (or pick them from my garden). I could even boycott cut flowers altogether, since, unlike food, they are not necessary for survival. But in general the whole system is so big and complex, and the supply chain so long it’s hard to even know where to start. If I boycott Kenyan roses, who am I helping? There’s also something wonderful about being able to get roses from Kenya. Kenya is proud of its airline and the people who work there in the flower industry are happy to have good jobs. That choice might hurt rather than help.

I too will be getting on a plane in less than a week. I’ve done my share of flying, for both business and pleasure. My carbon footprint is not small. I have always loved looking out of airplane windows to see the clouds. I took these pictures, of Mt. Rainier and Diamond Head, last year when we were on our way from Seattle to Hawaii for a vacation. That I am one of the few humans in all history who can take such pictures, that I live in such an age, is awesome, humbling, and sad at the same time.


Summer Caching: Lair of the Fire Troll

A little over 4 years ago, our son, then 7 years old, hid a geocache. He was a fan of an online game called Wizard 101, and his character was named Blake Winterforge. He decided to make that game the theme of this geocache, which we hid at the end of winter, under a bridge in a local park, Beaver Brook Reservation. Recently the cache was reported missing, so we went out to see whether it needed to be repaired or replaced.

One side of the bridge
The other side of the bridge
The other side of the bridge

The hiding may have been a father-son-only bonding activity, though, because when we got there I had no memory of the place. We walked through tall grass beside a meadow to get to a bridge in the woods, under which, supposedly, a Fire Troll lives.The bridge connects parks in two different towns:  Rock Meadow in Belmont and Beaver Brook in Waltham, and it lets you know when you’re leaving one and crossing into the other.

It turned out, though, my husband didn’t really remember the bridge either. He thought they may have entirely rebuilt it. That would explain the cache’s disappearance. We waited for some muggles to finish wading in the stream and replaced the container.

Getting ready to replace the cache.
Getting ready to replace the cache.

I have lots of pictures of Belmont in the other 3 seasons: fall, winter, and spring, but summer stumps me a bit. It may be because most of my summer pictures are taken on trips and are of other locales. In our shady yard, most of the flowers are either gone by now or not blooming yet, and the plants either die or get overgrown with weeds. Either way, they don’t seem picture-worthy anymore. It reminds me a bit of our house, which right now seems both inactive and overrun with clutter, as we prepare to pack it up and move out. The woods are an antidote to this feeling. Just let it be. Let nature do its thing.

swingset rock meadow

Last Lesson

Yesterday I had what realistically is probably my last viola lesson with my current teacher. Probably . . . realistically . . . clearly I don’t want this to have been my last lesson. Qualifying adverbs much? We left it open that as moving day approaches, if I want some time to do something hands-on that uses a different part of my brain than packing and decluttering (like, I dunno, PLAYING AN INSTRUMENT?), I should come over and have another lesson. She’ll be there.

–>

Panorama Tree

IMG_2878I have lived in Belmont, Massachusetts since 2003, for over 12 years. We bought this house and moved in right before my son was born, because we needed more space. It’s the only place he has ever lived. Now that I am moving across the country, I want to post and commemorate some of my favorite spots around Belmont.

I try to be regular about taking a walk every day, especially now that I don’t walk my kids to school anymore. It helps me get 10,000 pedometer steps in a day, and it’s easy on summer mornings.These walks have helped me to get to know my immediate neighborhood, too,

There is a lovely church on the corner that I pass every time I walk. I don’t attend this church, but it has facilities, such as a kitchen and a gym, that the community uses for scout meetings and parties. It also has this tree, which I hadn’t really looked at quite like this before. I used to use the panorama function on my camera quite a lot, but I forgot about it once I got the iPhone. Not anymore. From the roots to the top branches, this tree is special. It looks like it should have a treehouse.

Book Review: Julian Comstock, a story of 22nd Century America

JulianComstockMy SF credentials clearly need updating in that I had not heard of Robert Charles Wilson before reading this book, Julian Comstock: a story of 22nd century America.

How I came to read it is a bit unusual. It began as a short story called “Julian: A Christmas Story” and that story is included in the study guide I have been using for my Neuroscience class. That class reads “Flowers for Algernon,” which is the short story previous to “Julian” in the study guide. I can’t seem resist reading ahead.

I had the book on my nightstand for at least a year, though, and I didn’t read it until recently because of the marketing. I’m glad I persevered, because the book is really good. It’s been a long time since I discovered a new SF author whose work I wanted to read all the rest of.

What do I mean by the marketing? Well, in this case I mean two things, namely, the title and the cover. Both the self-publishing advice guides I’ve read and the writing and publishing advice I’ve received in person all harp on these two things constantly: the title is the first thing your reader is going to read, and you’ve GOT TO have a good cover. These things are supposed to “hook” your readers, catch their attention, draw them in to your story. Blah blah blah.

Well, sorry Robert (or Robert’s publisher), these did not. The cover is a mixture of several different elements, none of them particularly promising. It shows a guy in a cowboy hat, looking away from the viewer, holding a gun and standing in front of a confused and confusing landscape that includes a possibly ruined town, a road, some nondescript buildings, and something that resembles the Statue of Liberty’s torch. I’m not particularly interested in cowboys, guns, Westerns, or really anything that contains a lot of shooting. I don’t insist on equal treatment of the sexes at all times, but I do prefer that there be at least one non-stereotypical female character in a story. And, if I see a ruined Statue of Liberty, I immediately think, “Planet of the Apes.”

And then there’s the title. I’m not enamored of titles that are just the name of one of the characters—even if it’s an important—even if it’s THE MOST important—character. I had the same trouble with Adam Bede, another book I ended up loving after taking a period of months in overcoming my resistance to the boring title. Adam Bede wasn’t even the most important character in that book, or the most interesting. That honor went to his future wife, Dinah. So I should really know better. But even so I still haven’t read, say, Silas Marner, Ethan Frome, Olive Kitteridge, or Ellen Foster. It’s a pretty good example of my being “bumped out of the story” as a reader before I even start.

I wonder whose idea it was to tack on the tagline, “A novel of 22nd century America” to Julian Comstock. Whosever it was, thank goodness. Because that’s why I finally read it. It is a future alternate history of the USA, which I am also experimenting with in Hallie’s Cache.

So, the cover is accurate. Julian Comstock is in fact a Western. There is quite a bit of shooting. The few women characters are interesting enough and are not doormats, but they don’t play a super-large role in the story. It reminded me of the Star Trek episode, “Spectre of the Gun,” in which Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have to re-enact the gunfight at the OK Corral. That was a fun episode, which I enjoyed, so this is not a fatal criticism, but it did seem like the 22nd century was an excuse to tell an old-fashioned Western tale that could have been set in the 19th-century USA without losing a whole lot. I’ve also read a couple of reviews that claim it’s a retelling of the history of Julian the Apostate, set in 22nd century America. That could have added to the sense of familiarity that I was feeling, but it’s also a neat idea.

My favorite parts of the book were these: the narrator and his voice, and the scope of the world building. One enables and enhances the other. Adam Hazzard, the narrator, is an intelligent but unworldly son of the working class who is fortunate to befriend Julian, the nephew of the President, while he is living on a plantation out of the capitol’s intrigue and away from his corrupt and tyrannical uncle.

An issue that faces authors of books about worlds very different from our own is how to work in exposition without confusing or boring the reader. Info dumps and expository lumps are big no-no’s, but without important back story, readers are also going to be confused and tune out. Writing from Adam’s point of view was a good way to solve this problem. Adam isn’t going to know how it works in Washington, he will have large gaps in his historical knowledge, and he will need things explained to him that will also help the reader. His questions were often my questions. Like other non-title characters, he was the most interesting, and relatable, character in the book for me. Adam’s voice, the classic “unreliable narrator” that you learn about in college literature classes, worked. In the end, I cared very much about Julian Comstock. I wanted him to achieve his goals, and I was glad that he found true love.

Occasionally Adam’s naiveté could get a little irritating, though, especially in the matter of intimate relationships. It’s not unreasonable to think that after a crash, American society would revert to something like the Old Wild West under a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. But I found it hard to suspend disbelief that major aspects of the American (and human) experience, such as homosexuality, the Jewish religion, and the scientific method, would be so completely outside of Adam’s ken as it is portrayed in the book. A few words from the 21st century, such as “eBay,” survive in garbled form and meaning in this world; it seems very unlikely that the words “gay,” “queer,” or something similar wouldn’t have survived, albeit in mutated form, as well. It also seems highly unlikely to me that virtually all the science of the 20th and 21st centuries would have disappeared. The “fashionable” vaccines that actually spread disease rather than cure it are a nice creepy touch, but they stand isolated as a plot device rather than being integrated into a plausibly dysfunctional medical system.

The Dominion–this world’s government–is powerful, but not that powerful. As portrayed, it lacks the ruthlessness, brutality, and attention to detail of the Ministry of Truth. And Deklan Comstock is no President Snow. Instead, Wilson limns a sprawling, lawless land, in which nameless throngs live and die on the margins and revert back to a simpler, perhaps more natural and fundamental state. I suggest that the fact that for Wilson this fundamental state resembles the 19th century American West, says more about the author than it does about us. Still, it brings up interesting questions. Can you un-ring the bell? Put the genie back in the bottle? Would you want to? And what can one man, even one with all the possible worldly power and advantage at his disposal, do against these forces before he too is swallowed by them?  I put this book down with a satisfying combination of mixed feelings: sadness and hope.

Dark Tide

Yesterday morning I finished formatting the four services that I have given over the past 4 summers at First Parish Watertown, and put them up on this blog as a more permanent record. People might wonder–heck, I wonder myself–how I had time to prepare a church service this year in the middle of getting ready to move to California. I don’t know. I’m trying to figure it out.

I had a migraine in the afternoon. After doing the blogging, I went out shopping to Home Depot with my husband to look at bathroom fixtures, tiles, and cabinets, for the new house in CA. Somehow, without really realizing what it was going to entail, I agreed to remodel the master bathroom in that house. We remodeled the master bath before we moved into this house as well, but I don’t remember that process making me feel like my head was going to explode, the way I felt yesterday. I was riding around in a hot car, too.

I have had these headaches off and on since adolescence. They occur less frequently now than they used to, for which I am grateful. They happened several times a month in college and graduate school, and still 1-2 times a month, sometimes more frequently, when I was working full time. Nowadays I think I am down to only a handful of times a year. I can’t remember for sure the last time I had one, it might have been last fall.

I wrote “migraine” here but I still don’t know if that’s the right word. I’ve been hesitant to use the term because I’ve read about migraines and my symptoms don’t match. “Real” migraines sound worse than what I get, and I don’t want to belittle the suffering of others. My headaches don’t follow classic symptoms: no aura, usually not on one side of the head. Sometimes there is throbbing, but not always. They almost always occur in the mid-to-late afternoon, never the morning. And, most difficult to describe, the pain isn’t excruciating or sharp. It’s not like this article in Huff Post Healthy Living (and my heart goes out to these people in the article and all migraine sufferers).  The metaphors that come to mind for me are not nails, hammers, baseball bats, vises, semi-trucks, or bricks. The metaphors that come to mind when I’m in the throes of it are more along the lines of something stealthy, sticky, and vicious. Cold, clammy, not-sweet molasses that I have to swim through. There was a molasses flood in Boston that killed people–there’s a book about it. I just want to break free, run away, get it off me, but I can’t run fast enough and it engulfs me and I succumb. That’s what my migraines feel like: the Dark Tide of 1919.

Where I also think I’m fortunate is that my migraines can almost always be cured by lying down in a dark room, where I’ll fall asleep for an hour or two, and feel better upon waking. The problem is, I don’t generally have the time, or even the place, to do that. When I was working standard work hours in an office or lab I definitely didn’t. And more to the point, wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, I feel like people resent it if, especially in the middle of the afternoon (which is when they occur), I have to excuse myself and go lie down.

In the morning before the migraine, I had been reading an interesting article about busy-ness: The Disease of Being Busy, by Omid Safi. I loved this article, it articulated just how I feel about the busy-ness that pervades so much of the society in which I live. Mr. Safi writes:

This disease of being “busy” (and let’s call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.

It echoes a number of the themes I touched upon in my service last Sunday. In that service, I included a responsive reading called “Keep Calm and Parent On,” which I edited and condensed for brevity from an article in Palo Alto Online by Dr. Adam Strassberg.  That article, written in the aftermath of a suicide cluster in Palo Alto CA, had an eloquent list of things that parents could do to help their teenagers, spiritually. This Safi article could have been written by a kindred spirit. He writes:

Let us insist on a type of human-to-human connection where when one of us responds by saying, “I am just so busy,” we can follow up by saying, “I know, love. We all are. But I want to know how your heart is doing.”

Yet my experience of this article also brings up an uncomfortable reality for me: I live with, and interact on a daily basis with, a number of people who simply don’t mind being busy, who even enjoy or thrive on it. In fact, most people I know who work serious full-time jobs seem to have a higher tolerance for it than I do and an expectation that I will be mostly like them. I’ve had to pull back and set boundaries on even my part-time work to prevent the relentless creep of busy-ness, to counter the assumption that I will be a happier and better employee if I am busy.  Blogger and author Gretchen Rubin, whose work I admire, has a favorite question for helping people who struggle with small talk: “What’s keeping you busy these days?” I do struggle with small talk, and so I appreciate most of her list, and even the spirit behind this question.

But . . . yuck. Just, yuck. The layers of assumptions–that everyone wants to be busy, that being busy is good, that I will have something keeping me busy that I want to talk about–can make me feel like my head is going to explode.

If I’m honest with myself and take a broad view, I have to admit that there are times when even I like to be busy. For example, last week I was “busy” preparing my church service. I read articles, I picked out hymns, I chose music, I practiced my viola and rehearsed with others. II wrote a 15-minute sermon and practiced delivering it several times. That sounds busy, but somehow, it didn’t feel like busy. It wasn’t a migraine trigger. I need to figure out the difference.