Friday, August 29, 2014


The slide on the huge screen on the auditorium stage reads: 

She's just a small town girl, living in a lonely world
She took the midnight train going anywhere
He's just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit
He took the midnight train going anywhere.

I have no idea what these words refer to.  I gather it’s a popular song because
1.     Jesse Manibusen, the presenter, guitar in hand, begins to sing.
2.     Most of the audience chimes in.
3.     I can add 1 + 1.
When they get to “Don’t stop believing,’” a part of my consciousness wades out of the fog.  I've heard those words and those bars before.

A few minutes later, Jesse strums, If I Had a Million Dollars.  At least that phrase, I’ve heard of.  I even know how the first two lines go.  But don’t ask me the rest of it.  I don’t know the words.  I don’t know the tune.  I don’t know if I ever knew that the song belongs to the Barenaked Ladies.  But I do recognize the name of the group.  That’s some consolation.

Strike three comes a few minutes later.  Jesse mentions Black Sabbath.  Is that a song?  A group?  I have no idea.  Someone mentions Iron Man.  I think there’s a movie by that title.  Is that what they mean?  Is Black Sabbath the theme song of the movie?    Once again, I am out of the loop.  (Google tells me later that Iron Man is a song by the British group Black Sabbath.  Who knew?)

As if to reinforce my separateness, I conjure up the harp that now adorns my living room.   A few weeks ago, I purchased a harp.  Not exactly on a whim; more a latent influence from time in Ireland and Wales.  Who owns a harp?  Hardly anyone.  But I now own a harp.  After two lessons, I am oriented to the notes, and I can play short songs with thirds in both hands.  I’m proud of myself.  Proud of my progress.  Proud of my purchase.  Even proud of my boldness.

Almost in telepathic commiseration, Jesse emphasizes two themes in his talk that resonate with me, especially in that auditorium, in that moment.   He underlines the value of diversity and the critical role of acceptance in human relationships.  He also reinforces the importance of stretching ourselves.  “Escape the circus,” he says, “and live beyond the limits of the imaginary lid” of the box we put ourselves in.   The harp takes me even further down that road.  

I leave the session grounded in my identity.  Jesse’s words compensate for my illiteracy in musical pop culture.  That I could sing along to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” at the end of the segment didn’t hurt either. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


I’m a heretic.  I’ve known that about myself for forever, but the trait is becoming so pronounced as I age that others must be noticing it, too.  Why should I be surprised, then, that I question the prevailing wisdom around reading challenges.

Personal reading challenges are all the rage.  If one can read a given number of books (40 is trending at the moment) in a given time period (and the shorter the time period, the better!), one can claim the title of “wild reader,” a phrase coined by Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer, Reading in the Wild) to describe someone obsessed with reading.  In fact, in her blog, Pernille Ripp, Wisconsin teacher and author, has confessed that she has failed her summer reading challenge—40 books.   Not a surprise, really, to my way of thinking.   I have always been suspicious of reading challenges like 40 books in the summer, maybe because, never having even approached such a lofty goal, I am a tad envious of those who do.  So I did the math.  Just to see.

What does it mean, in hours, to read 40 books during the summer? 

First, I defined summer.  Not the summer of seasons, but summer for a teacher, or, summer holidays:   July 1 (June 30 is most often the last day of work for teachers in Canada) to August 17 (allowing for a two-week preparation period for school start-up), 48 days.

Second, I defined a book.  I chose 250 pages as a reasonable length for a novel or non-fiction.  Often, books far surpass this length, well, the books I tend to read, anyway, making the challenge even more daunting.  Let’s keep it manageable, for the sake of argument.

What about reading rate?  There’s another variable.  How many words does an average person read per minute?  Execuread says two minutes per page, or thirty pages per hour.  For technical reading, the site indicates five to six minutes per page, or 15 pages per hour.  Readers who comment on Goodreads cite 50 pages per hour.  (I seldom read that fast.  I like to reflect while I read, imagine, annotate, note, highlight, flag, and, often, record my impressions in my journal or in the margins of my book, and that slows me down.) Still, let’s opt for the higher number.

Now, for the number crunching.   To read 40 books in 48 days, a person would have to read 1.2 books per day.  lf the book has 250 pages, at 50 pages an hour, that would mean six hours of reading.  Six hours of reading, every day, without fail, for 40 days, under the optimum conditions of short book, lots of time, and an impressive reading rate.

I read a lot in the summer—while traveling and out on the patio, mostly.  I have read six hours in a day, a few times in my life, I think, plunged into an alternate universe and loathe to let go of the characters and the events in their lives.  Most of the time, though, I snatch ten or fifteen minutes here and there to supplement the hour, maybe two, I designate for summer reading that doesn’t include the newspaper, articles I follow from Twitter feeds, and, of course, the analysis of the Riders’ current status.  And that’s now that I’m “retired,” a person of few fixed obligations, not when I had a full-time job, three children and a husband at home to feed, as well as my parents to care for, liturgies to plan and my own musicianship to keep up, and executive roles in a few community organizations to fulfill.

The truth is that, despite its importance in a person’s life, summer trumps  reading.  Summer is for sizzling steaks, grilled vegetables, vibrant salads and wine spritzers shared with family and friends on the patio; beer and munchies with the neighbors in the middle of the afternoon; red wine on the deck with my husband at sunset; early morning walks to birds chirping, lawn mowers growling, carpenters hammering down shingles, and grain trucks in a queue at the elevator; long evening bike rides, and decadent cold treats just any time at all.    I like to spend time at the piano, prepare delicacies, visit my children, explore other countries or hidden treasures in my own province.    

I consider my life enriched, not deprived, because I like to vary my activities.  That is the heresy.  I still consider myself a wild reader, though.  After all, I will read anything, leave my work to snatch a few more minutes with a good book or gobble up an article of interest in the current Maclean’s.  I am not a “lost reader“ or a “bad reader,“ as Pernille Ripp describes herself in her blog post, “So I Failed My Own Reading Challenge and Learned Something New.”  The wild reader in me is alive and well, not “[lying] within waiting to wake up.”  It is just redefined and managed.

Nor do I think, as Ripp does, that life “life will be alright [sic] if I am not reading, (but maybe not as fantastic as it could be).”  If my life is not fantastic, the tipping point would be health issues or challenges that friends or family face or my own struggle to support people in my life and in the world, not whether or not I have had my nose in a book for six hours a day.  As much as reading enriches my life, the number of books I read is not a deal breaker. 

Reading is a passion.  I don’t want it to become a task, something I have to give up something else to do.  Reading must continue to enrich my life, not detract from the plethora of worthwhile and significant ways I use my time.  So, I will continue to track my reading, to have several eclectic books on the go at once, to allow myself to be distracted when I find an article I must read right now, to talk about books and keep book lists.  I won’t, however, impose a reading challenge on myself or on anyone else, even if that makes me a heretic.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


Of course I would like a tour of the professional space in which my children or my sister live.  I’m flattered that they ask.  After all, I get a glimpse of a side of their lives I’ve only heard about in snippets. 

My body slows with the open door.  I want to take it all in, the sights, the explanations, the impressions, the stories.   On one tour, I focus on an open, collegial environment and the components in development on the desk.  I even get to play with some prototypes.  In another city and another space, I take in a design room with three stations festooned with the inhabitants’ familiars—a bobble-head doll, some photos of family and friends, a fleece to mitigate the ventilation system.  I feel at home here.  I could make myself comfortable on the sofa beside the door, as I suspect many people do, and chat for a bit, if there would be time in the busy schedule.   A year later, during a third tour, I hear threads of dialogue from drama majors rehearsing on the stairs of the gallery while visual arts students set up displays.  I hear a trio practising outside in the courtyard, and I notice that maintenance workers are preparing the amphitheatre for a performance.  The tour ends with  a look at the graduate students’ residence, and my orientation is complete.  Just a few months ago, I meet many of my sister's colleagues and wander through the office.  At the end of each of those visits, I feel satiated.

Why are these tours so important to me?   It must be that each one has its own energy that people I love are assimilating, and that I want to tap into to get to know them better.  Furthermore, each workplace is situated in a different city, west, east and south.  The energy the spaces exude forms my own personal ley lines connecting me with my family.  After the workplace visits, I can imagine the group conferences, design feedback sessions, rehearsals, or meetings.  I can visualize situations they might describe, and that strengthens my connection to them.

I’d never thought of those connections as energy conduits, as my own horizontal ley lines soldering me to my children or my sister.  It’s the lore around the ley lines connecting the Tor at Glastonbury with Stonehenge that  synapsed with images of  me on the same site as key historical figures, from the seat on Rosa Parks’ bus to the gardens of Mackenzie King’s summer home at Kingsmere to St. Francis’ Chapel and Shakespeare’s birthplace,  and that then prompted the leap to my children’s lives.  From the Tor to the tours, I guess.

And the upshot of all this?  Simply this: in shared experience resides power for understanding, and with understanding comes acceptance and peace.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Glastonbury Tor
 The tor at Glastonbury in Avalon, on the Somerset plain, in England,  claims the entire countryside.  Visible for miles, it rises up to signal the presence of Glastonbury Abbey, purported site of the tomb of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere until 1539, when the monastery fell victim to King Henry’s VIII’s pillaging, both to cement his schism with the Church of Rome and to finance wars with the French.

When we visited the abbey about two weeks ago, we also learned that the Glastonbury Tor and Abbey  align with Stonehenge along an ancient pathway called a ley line, about which various theories on their origin and function abound.  (In her epic Outlander series, author Diana Gabaldon has linked the energy fields attributed to ley lines to the ability of dowsers to find water, homing pigeons to navigate, and, at spots where they converge, time barriers to open up, allowing time travel for those who are genetically disposed to it.  See  An Echo in the Bone, pp. 452 – 454.)  Whatever the ultimate significance  of ley lines,  their association with energy and mystical experiences captures for me the sense of profound connection I feel on the site of a past or present event of great personal significance.
Stones on threshold of
Shakespeare's birthplace
 When I am able to  visit places that have impacted my thought and view of the world,  but that I had only read about, I am forever tethered to that spot.   In July, I stood on the same stone floor as William Shakespeare stepped on thousands of time as a child.  I stayed mired to the spot for several minutes, as if the stones themselves had become giant suction cups that gripped my feet.  In those seconds, snippets of lines from the plays remind me to be true to myself, that time and the hour run through the roughest day, that a secret man of blood exists in everyone, that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women in it merely players.  Yet again, I admire Shakespeare as a person so connected himself to the human condition that his words and characters live and breathe six hundred years later.  And that’s only one example.

Air raid shelter in the walls
surrounding Cardiff Castle
In the last few years, I have been moved in the same way many times.  I have walked the worn path of St. Francis in his chapel in Assisi, keying in on the imperative of a simple life.  Under the blazing Italian sun, I ambled the streets of Pompeii in the shadow of Vesuvius, reflecting on the transitory nature of life, replete one second, imprisoned in lava the next.  Near Cardiff Castle in Wales, I wandered through the air raid shelters built during World War II into the stone walls that surround the castle. I smelled the musty air, heard my words echo back to me, and admired the courage of the men, women, and children who waited, terrorized, as the bombs exploded.   Even the brief foray into the tunnels left me claustrophobic.

Barracks at Birkenau
 It’s a discomfort I have felt in a few other locations.  As I rode in the same elevator Adoph Hitler used to access his Eagle’s Nest retreat in the Bavarian Alps, aware of the mirrored walls, the gold handrails and the lush carpet, I wondered how many of the people who rode with Hitler may have felt uneasy.  Then, worse still, the results of Hitler’s handiwork in the barracks of Birkenau, Auschwitz II.  The victims whisper through the thin walls, the uneven, plank bunks and the single row of latrines.  “Don’t take your secure, comfortable life for granted,” they remind me.  “Even decent people can do monstrous things or allow bad things to happen.  Fight oppression.”

Elevator to Hitler's Eagles' Nest

Latrines at Birkenau
So it seems that I have established my own ley lines.  The first set run through time from the ground that felt the footsteps of  St. Francis, Shakespeare, the citizens of Pompeii and Cardiff, the victims of Auschwitz, and yes, even Adolph Hitler, all the way to me.    A second set ties together the significant places that connect us to our children, scattered west, east, and south, and takes the edge off distance.   The Glastonbury Tor has come to encapsulate all of that connectivity, past and present.  More on the present next time.

Saturday, August 2, 2014


 "Diseases, desperate grown, / By desperate appliances are relieved, / Or not at all," says Claudius, in Hamlet (IV, ii).  He knows whereof he speaks:  he’s murdered a king to marry his wife, and now he is aware that Hamlet, his stepson and nephew, has discovered his crime.  He must take desperate action.  Shakespeare couldn’t know, however, that those words would someday describe a liturgical moment.

After a week's hiatus from music ministry, I had no reason to expect the unexpected in tonight’s liturgy.  As usual in the church segment of my pre-liturgy routine, I turned on the mixer PA switch, remote-clicked to activate the power for the screen and projector, and pressed the button to lower the screen.   I retrieved the computer, with dongle and projector remote, from the sacristy, along with the hymn numbers and microphones.  Equipped, all I had to do was connect cords, press buttons, and enter codes to be ready to go.

Next, I turned on the projector.  Back at the piano, though, I heard a buzz, a buzz I had never heard before.   Was it the projector?   Too pervasive.  The sound system?  A distinct possibility.  

I  shut off the mixer.  

No more buzz.  Ah!  

On again—oh, oh!  More buzz!  


An adjustment on the volume control did nothing but mute the vibration a bit.  Vibration—that’s what it felt like.  Could the floor be involved somehow?  I stamped my foot down hard on a likely spot.  Silence.  Okay, we were in business.

The “disease“ was in remission.  Not for long, though.  Just before the Kyrie, the buzz reoccurred.  A quick on-off on the mixer proved fruitless.  I stomped tentatively, to no avail.  I’d run out of time, though.  The presider had already started the "I confess to Almighty God . . ."  Back to the piano for the next two songs.  I played and sang the Gloria on auto-pilot.  All I could think about  the whole time was how I could handle the pervasive buzz when I had finished the song.  Option 1:  Turn off the mixer when I didn't need it, and endure the buzz.  Option 2:  One more stomp.  If any moment could be considered suitable for stomping, it would be between the First Reading and the Psalm, when a pause would be expected protocol.  A noise would indeed be a distraction, but not any worse than the continual buzz or intermittent and predictable clicks of the mixer power switch.

By the end of the First Reading, I had decided on Option 2.  A desparate situation required a desparate strategy.  The reader finished the Old Testament reading, and concluded with "Thanks be to God."  I waited for her to sit down.  I got up, stood over the spot I had identified, and, with all the force I could muster, I pounded it.  The thump echoed throughout the church.  However, after that noise—silence!!

I stole a glance at the presider, admirable in his contained mirth.   The buzz was contained for the rest of the mass. 

So, another first in Yvette’s Excellent Liturgical Adventures.  Desperate measures relieved a desperate disease.  At least until tomorrow.