Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Giving Season

A long time ago my friends and I decided that white elephant gift exchanges and ornament exchanges were a waste of money. We all have more ornaments than we can fit on our trees and, in the season of giving, finding obnoxious gifts that no one really wants just isn't our style.

However, we still love to eat, drink and be merry... and so we had a thought. What if we, a large group of women, took the money we would otherwise have collectively spent on ornaments or cheesy gifts and put it to better use.

And so it was born, our annual tradition. One part cookie exchange, one part raffle, one part cocktail party and one part fundraiser.

When you walk into the party you immediately contribute whatever cash you're comfortable contributing to "the bucket". You also put your name in for the fabulous door prize drawing which happens later in the evening. We busy ourselves with cocktails and catching up and eventually we get cookies... in a very serious process that's taken years to perfect (read: minimize cat fights over the most beautifully packaged cookies). The door prizes are given away and then, finally, a name is drawn for the charity bucket. She whose name is drawn gets to decide to which charity the evening's proceeds will be donated.

This year, in a year where money is tight for everyone, the cash bucket seemed noticeably fuller. That's just the kind of women my friends are, though, they know where charity really begins.

The evening was as lovely as ever this year, right up until the charity bucket moment, that is. A name was drawn and a winner announced. She was over the moon, as if she'd won the lottery and the money was hers to keep. "SR," she gasped, naming the local children's hospital, "I choose SR!" As quickly as the words left her mouth, our other friend emerged from the crowd with tears in her eyes and hugged our winner saying thank you repeatedly... our friend who came so close to losing her child two months ago that the doctors themselves have called it a miracle... our friend whose son is alive today because of those doctors and that hospital. A friend who has used her son's story to help the hospital raise much needed funds. And so, you see, the evening instantly became lovelier than ever before because we were suddenly, painfully, yet also joyfully, reminded not only of how powerful it is to give but also that charity does, indeed, begin at home.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Joyful Noise

There's a young man who is important in the life of my child. He has bonded with a kid whose painful shyness makes him a tough nut to crack.

Exhibit B is bright and athletic. He's been multiplying since he was four, knows everything there is to know about most animal species and can run a sub-6:00 mile. He can kick a ball and shoot hoops like nobody's business, but at the end of the day, he's an introvert and I am not sure whether he enjoys the sports themselves or simply the time spent with his dad, coach extraordinaire. It doesn't much matter, really.

I admit it. I forced him to take piano lessons. I knew in my heart of hearts he would love it... but he's a kid for whom change is tough... and a weekly piano lesson and piano practice meant an anxiety inducing change in the routine.

On the day of the first lesson, Piano Man (PM) arrived and I was a little taken aback. He was polite, but obviously shy. He had little to say to me, though he was immediately drawn to my baby grand, which he looked over and listened to intently. When Exhibit B walked into the room, PM's demeanor changed. He is one of those people that has an instant connection with kids, and B was no exception. Smiling, I listened from the kitchen throughout those first 30 minutes and heard B open up with happy chatter. I knew it was going to be a perfect match.

Nowadays PM's arrival each week is highly anticipated. I never have to remind B to practice, and listening to the two of them joke around and play piano continues to be music to my ears, both literally and figuratively. They sometimes get silly... like renaming all the Christmas carols (I Sawed Three Ships in Half) which sends B into fits of giggles... and everyone knows that children giggling is the most joyful noise there is.

One evening PM and B got to talking and I overheard PM saying how nervous he was about his upcoming senior recital, a requirement for graduation. PM is a young husband and father who pays the bills via piano lessons while finishing his degree in music education. I was incredibly appreciative of PM's candor with B, as I know B could relate to that nervousness on many levels. B asked him more about the recital and PM started to play a few notes of some of the songs he was going to play. At the very end of the lesson, he played Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring and simply stated, "this isn't in my recital, I just like the way it flows."

I pulled PM aside that night and told him what a positive influence he was on B and thanked him for it. I also mentioned how beautifully he played and that Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring is one of my favorite pieces of classical music. There are many reasons to love that song, and I gave him a few examples of moments in my life in which I remember it as background music. I also shared with him that on days when the illness takes hold I often listen to classical music for its calming effect. We chatted about the power of music and how musical minds work.

After that night, at the end of each lesson, PM played Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. It became a routine I started to look forward to... my own personal concert at 6:25 every Thursday, and our after-lesson chats started increasing in length and depth.

Today was PM's senior recital. I got the details about it from the University and B and I showed up to sit front and center to share this important moment in PM's life. I wanted to be there to support and encourage him and allow B to see him shine despite having expressed some anxiety about the process.

As he took the stage, he was visibly nervous. All dressed up under the spotlight, just PM and a black Steinway grand. He bowed, gave some acknowledging smiles and nods, and then he began to play. The notes filled the hall with an amazing richness. He closed his eyes and let the music carry him. He was, in fact, brilliant.

He played four pieces. Between each piece he took a tentative bow, and twice he left the stage. He was doing everything in his power to keep the butterflies away from his fingers and was succeeding. He finished out the performance with a stunning rendition of Beethoven's Sonata in C minor. A look of relief rushed over his entire body as he took a final bow to a standing ovation. PM began to exit the stage but then paused at the door and turned back. This time he was calm and collected. Without even the slightest hint of nervousness he said, quite simply, "I'd like to play one more, if you don't mind."

No one minded, especially me.

Thank you for my joyful song today, PM. It was the best you've ever played it.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Another Nutcracker Moment...

As I stand behind Exhibit A, changing her hair from one high bun into two small buns on top of her head (like budding devil horns!), a crowd of girls starts to gather. They watch intently with each pull of the comb, each twist of the hair and each bobby pin insertion. I spin her around and begin to change her make-up. She needs big red rosy cheeks for the next role and the application of ridiculously long rainbow foil eyelashes, likely the most coveted accessory (aside from the tiaras, of course) of any role. There is a hushed excitement that comes over the girls when those lashes come out of the kaboodle.

These girls have seen this costume, this hair, this make-up, and yes, even these eyelashes countless times... not just on Exhibit A, but on the girls that have danced this role in years past. However, they still get excited to watch the transformation. Someday, they will be expected to do all of this on their own. They watch. They process. They learn. As I continue to work, they literally move around so they can see what I'm doing from all different angles. They do so in silence and without invading my space or Exhibit A's. It almost feels choreographed. When I'm done, they spontaneously clap and then complimented my effort as though I've just performed the role myself.

This is their passion and this seemingly mundane ritual is a part of their art. It is, indeed, a privilege to watch kids for whom something so simple brings so much joy.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Nutcracker Mania

Ahhhhh... the care and keeping of a ballerina during Nutcracker week is literally a full time job. Two dress rehearsals and eight performances in the space of 6 days is hectic to say the least. There are early call times, hair and make-up to be done, costumes to repair, eyelashes to glue on, hair pieces to clip in and of course, hats, bonnets and tiaras to secure to little heads. I admit, I have had a bit of tiara envy. I wonder if the Snow Queen would mind if I accidentally knocked her over and swiped hers... ;).

One of the things I like to do during this week is focus on the many behind the scenes moments that just kinda make your heart sing... you know, if you have a heart that's not encrusted in ice like mine.

Yesterday's moment: It's intermission during a school show. Audience is filled with little tiny humans as well as a buncha seniors from area nursing homes. We don't let any of them out of their seats during intermission (no mass chaos in the bathrooms, no wandering off, etc.), so instead we entertain them. They do some stretching, they watch the snow get cleaned off the stage by the North Pole helpers who have to rush the snow back to Santa before it melts, and then Rudolph himself makes an appearance. One of the company members leads them in singing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and a few other songs that fill the time so we can do the scenery change.

Backstage, the audio is piped into the dressing rooms so everyone can hear their cues. It's cute to hear all the kidlets and the blue hairs singing away out in the theater. But today was different. Out of nowhere, all of the girls in the dressing room stopped what they were doing and started singing along to We wish you a Merry Christmas. It was like time stood still and the crazy hustle and bustle of costume changes, hair spraying and Timeless Ruby lipstick application was forgotten and the spirit of the season took over. In that moment there was a sense of "this is what it's all about". They were there this morning to give back to their community... to reach out simultaneously to the youngest and oldest members of it and share their collective passion with each other and their audience.

The song ended and it was back to business as usual.