Friday, April 14, 2017

The Warriors

I don't save lives, Amy said to Angus. 

Over the last couple of days, I've posted on the question of Why Music?  Shawn, Amy, and Niall are all musicians.  But Niall is also a warrior--hence the name of the book The Minstrel Boy.

The Minstrel Boy to the war has gone
In the ranks of death you'll find him
His father's sword he has girded on
His wild harp slung behind him.

I believe we need music.  Need it.  But we do also need those who fight.  For better or worse, war has been with us throughout the history of mankind.  We need those who are willing to lay their lives on the line, to risk the greatest sacrifice of all, to protect and defend their country and those who are weaker.

Niall has lost six brothers--two of them executed by the English because they defended the Scots.  His story isn't that far off the story of the Bruce himself, whose four brothers, Neil, Edward, Thomas, and Alexander, all died fighting for Scotland.  (Many historians would argue Edward wasn't exactly fighting 'for Scotland' at the time of his death, but that's a debate for a different post.)

Niall is a warrior, and Shawn, a twenty-first century celebrity musician once known for his partying and womanizing, comes to understand the seriousness of his choices:

The first sight of the English would inspire dread in the bravest troops in Christendom, it was later said.  They covered the land like locusts, tens of thousand.  Sunlight glinted off helmets, armors, spears.  White banners, too many to count, snapped over them.  The earth shook under their heavy warhorses.  Their columns stretched for twenty miles.
The Scots gathered, five thousand, for Mass, on the morning of battle.  The Bruce walked among them, marked as separate only by the thin band of gold circling his auburn hair and the suffering of leadership stamped on his face.  "We are hopelessly outnumbered!"  His voice rang like a clarion.
"Any man who wishes to turn now and go to the aid and protection of his family may do so without consequence.  'Twill be held against no man, should he choose to walk away now!"
The men heard.
The men held their ground.

In the midst of this David and Goliath struggle, the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, stands Shawn:

bannockburn, scottish history, great battles, warriors, england and scotland
English trumpets screamed through the blood.  Hairs rose on Shawn's arms.  Sweat trickled down his chest and back, inside his padded gambeson.  ...His leg wept in pain from the wolf's claws.  Back home, he'd be recuperating.  Here, every man was needed.  Old men with sunken cheeks and long gray beards and fresh-faced pubescent boys, jaws firm, stood among the strong men of Robert's army.
His heart raced.  He glanced back at Coset Hill. His pulse pounded in his throat.  He didn't want to be recuperating.  The stitches would hold.  They had to!  His damp hand slipped on his sword.  He wanted to be here, with these men and boys, between the English and Allene. 
The English charged.  His heart pulsed furiously in his throat.  He felt sick.  He wanted to run.  He squared his own jaw, awaiting orders. 

Shawn has changed to the point he is ready to stand between the might of England and Allene, even to the point of death. 

Like it or not, there is war, and I am grateful to those willing to serve.  And then there are the mothers--such as Niall's mother, who has watched her sons go to war.

Tonight, life comes close to imitating art.  My third son, my fifth child, has been at Camp Pendleton since late January.  His platoon has just finished their 'Crucible,' a 54 hour test of strength, will, and perseverance, and of all the recruits have learned for months prior.  They undergo a physical and mental challenge such as they have never endured, of physical obstacles, combat simulations, long-distance marches, and working together on very little sleep or food.  They do this for--the honor of being a Marine, of serving those they don't even know, of potentially risking their very lives for the rest of us.

Among my nine children, I have many--many--things of which to be proud--in academics, in sports, in music, in character, in volunteering for good causes, in how they have chosen to live, in laughter, in love for one another, in their choice of spouses and boyfriends and girlfriends.  Among them, they sing and play many instruments.  They share a lot of laughter and love for each other, and film wonderfully funny videos together.  (The Matriarch Strikes Back is one of my favorites--as 'my' height and voice change depending which of my kids is playing the role of 'the matriarch' at the moment.)

But I am finding there is a whole separate category for watching your son become a Marine: a man ready to live and die to protect others. 

 The waiting is hard, Christina says.  Allene tries to tell Niall how hard the waiting is. 

This past week, life has imitated art.  I have sat up late not knowing if my son finished and succeeded  at his Crucible, or if he was still struggling, pushing himself to achieve what one site tells me will be a sunrise ceremony, at a statue of Iwo Jima, where he will receive his Eagle, Globe, and Anchor.  It has been hard knowing that my child--albeit an adult--was facing the most difficult challenge of his life and I could do nothing. 

I have waited to see if anyone will call to tell me one way or another, even as I plan out the road trip to be there for his graduation ceremony.  I received a letter this morning, written on April 8, telling me he expected to finish the Crucible at dawn on Maundy Thursday--today--but I haven't heard any word. 

The waiting is hard.

Through reading and writing, through life, we learn the ways we are not so different from those who lived hundreds of years ago.  Mothers have always waited for word of their sons gone to war.  We understand the people of times gone by because we are still experiencing the same things.  My son may one day fight with and against bullets, while Marjorie Bruce's sons, and Niall's mother's sons fought with and against swords and arrows.  But the emotions are no different.  Bullets or arrows, it makes little difference--these are our sons who are going through hardship, who are maybe in danger.  Our love for them is no different.  Our memories of them as small children is no different.  Our fear for them is no different.

Tonight, I finalize my plans to be there for my son's graduation from Marine boot camp.  His siblings, all eight of them, are proud of him and doing what they can to support him.  One brother can't take time off work to be there--but he can stay at my house and take care of the pets so I can be.  Another brother can't be there (again, work) but has a gift ready for him, which his dad will pick up on the way out to the graduation ceremony. 

People like Angus...they need people like Amy, the musicians who save their souls.  And the musicians and artists need the rescuers and warriors.  Isn't this the intricate dance of life?  We are each called to our own path, we are each called to support the rest, and we are each called to our ways of helping and rescuing and lifting and saving the rest.

Congratulations and thank you to my son and to all the young men of his platoon who have completed Marine training this week and are willing to put themselves on the line for the rest of us.


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Monday, April 10, 2017

Why Music: Part Two

I don't save lives, Amy said to Angus.  We continue with the question of Why Music, started yesterday, giving a few more thoughts on what music does for us.

Music speaks to us.  We speak with music, saying to others what we are unable, unwilling, or afraid to say.

Just like we know musicians who tell their story in their songs, we all know of musicians who pen lyrics telling ex-boyfriends what they think of them.  I'd name names, but I'm so totally not up on current celebrities (hey, how can I be, I've been busy in 1317, trying to save Niall!) I might name the wrong one.  Anyway, I'm sure she's neither the first, nor the last to do so.

Shawn does speaks through music in a unique way, leaving music for Amy to find in her own time:
I don't know much Latin.  But I know the text below the diamond-headed neumes doesn't say what the melody does: I made so many mistakes, I'm so sorry, can you believe me?

I draw slow breath, fighting the punch to the solar plexus.  Give me one last chance; please don't leave me.

I arranged it with Shawn for his brass quintet.  I know every word.  He knows I know every word.  I see his eyes, the sad desire in the chapel, as his message whispers against my heart.  I'm so sorry, can you believe me?

Tears sting my eyes.  Give me one last chance.  Please don't leave me.

I slap it away, as if it burns.  A Gregorian chant follows.  But the next manuscript sings out.  Don't forget me when I'm gone.

~~The Water is Wide, Book Three of The Blue Bells Chronicles (click the image below to be taken to the book)

Music brings us memories that will last a lifetime and make us smile years later.  I can give a list of pieces that will always take me back to a certain place and time, and bring back to life, so to speak, the people who were with me at the time.  Songs that will always make me smile, or songs that will bring back a sense of poignancy regarding a sad event or difficult time--or a happy time that is gone.

There are reasons we make play lists.

Every movie has a soundtrack: because music impacts our emotions.  I did a lesson some years ago when I taught school, in which I played a scene from a movie with three different types of music playing behind it and had the students write what they felt during the scene, what they expected to happen next, and so on.  Not surprisingly, the music that played greatly impacted their experience of the scene--even though they were watching the same exact actions.

Music will be a part of the last celebration of life for most of us, in an attempt to sum up our lives and see us on to the next, and to bring comfort and hope to those remaining.

Music soothes and heals.  We are learning how music can help those with Alzheimer's, among other things.  There are entire schools devoted to the art of music therapy, and how various modes impact our moods and our healing.  Plato discusses in The Republic how these modes in fact can be used to impact us in all the ways above, by the musician who understands them.  Kids on the autism spectrum can be greatly helped by learning to play an instrument.

Music tells our story as a people.  How much can we glean of history through the ancient ballads left to us?  How much do we feel the heart and soul of a nation through its music--as I mentioned in my March Books and Brews, The Wearing of the Green is the happiest song you'll ever hear about execution!  The ballads and folk songs of any country--certainly those from Scotland which I'm steadily adding to my YouTube channel--tell us the stories of a time and place.

How many songs are stories set to music?  The Devil Went Down to Georgia, Spanish Train, Lulu's Back in Town?

How many musicians are telling us their life story through their songs?

Why music?  Angus tells us:
"You've no idea," he said.  "When I've watched a child die before my eyes, when I couldn't save him, what music does.  You save souls."


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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Why Music?

Why music?  It's a question Amy alludes to, when she tells Angus she never saves anyone's life.

Music is a big part of The Blue Bells Chronicles.  I could fill multiple posts with scenes of music, but here are just three from Westering Home, Book Four of The Chronicles, showing some contrasts in the times, places, and uses of music.

Dark circles etched the king’s eyes.  His auburn hair had more streaks of gray than when last Niall had seen him.  James Douglas, ten years the king’s junior, looked strong and robust beside him, his black hair and beard bristling like a lion’s mane.  His blue eyes wrinkled into a smile at sight of Niall.  He turned to Bruce.  “I believe your tonic is here.”  
Niall dropped to one knee, bowing, holding the harp to his back.  He rose, meeting Bruce’s eyes.  “My apologies, Your Grace.  I bring no tonic.  Only my men and sword.”  
“You’ve heard, surely,” the king rubbed his forehead, “of my daughter’s death....  I’ve been fighting more than ten years without cease.  I’ve brought death and ill fortune on my friends and all whom I love.” 
“Still, I’ve no tonic,” Niall said.  
“You miss the value of your own gifts,” said Bruce.  “My fortune has turned since the early years.  I’ve men and swords aplenty.  You will fight, aye, but I want music for my men’s spirits.”  He propped his elbows on his table, his hands clenched.  “Play for me.”

Westering Home

Niall thought of Shawn.  He’d be prancing across a stage with a sackbut—a trombone—entertaining screaming women
 Westering Home
Shawn grinned at them as if he’d intended a dramatic pause, stepped back with a snap of his fingers and, “A one, a two, a one, two, three, four,” as the curtains swung open, and the waiting jazz band burst into the rapid-fire opening of Opus One.
  Westering Home

Over the past two weeks, I've had invitations to several music events ranging from the Rose Ensemble's medieval music to an unnamed small group playing 70s and 80s ballads to Boogie Wonderland--which is 70s boogie, not Andrews Sisters Bugle Boy boogie.  Big difference!  In a week or so, I will be hearing the Marine band play music very different from any of those.  If I can find some time, I'll make a point of getting back to some big band music and swing dancing (watching, not doing, unfortunately.) A couple of months ago, I attended an opera.  (Diana's Garden, written by a contemporary of Mozart.)

My personal playing has ranged from oratorios with 200 other musicians and singers to musicals to a military brass band (the Farragut Brass Band, which played for Navy ships sailing out or returning) to an 18 piece big band playing hits of the 30s and 40s to flute and harp solos of Celtic folk songs. 

I've been hired to play a wooden fife (with my son playing the bodhran) as dockside entertainment for those waiting to board the re-creation of the tallship Endeavor that was sailing around the world at the time.  I've played hymns and responsorial psalms for church choirs, Easter sunrise services in graveyards, and in a trombone choir performing in a bar (true story, I'm not kidding--I was also about 8 months pregnant at the time.) 

My friend Judd (a fantastic songwriter) and I occasionally play some harp and guitar together.  One discovery we made is that electric guitar and alto flute actually sound great together!

I played for a year in the Minneapolis Chinese Music Ensemble on dizi, which are Chinese bamboo flutes and required learning to read an entirely different form of music notation.  (I would love to still be doing it, but there are simply no more hours in my days.)

Each style is so different.  The crowds are different at each place.  For the opera, long gowns, jewels and even full blown Victorian garb including top hats and black cloaks, were seen.  Nary a cough drop wrapper was to be heard from the crowd once the music started.  Wine at intermission.

The Rose Ensemble--nice evening wear, respectful quiet, applause at the end of each piece.  No drinks.  Absolutely nobody took selfies of themselves jamming to Pelham Humfrey. 

The unnamed band--people continued to talk throughout, eat, and walk over popcorn on the floor.  Lots of beer.

Boogie Wonderland--dancing, jeans, club wear, music so loud people had to shout to be heard in conversation.  Cocktails, drinks with rum and vodka, beer, wine. 

Yet it's all music.  In every case, people went home happy. 

Music is one thing that remains constant across all time, all people, all cultures, all socio-economic classes.  Is there any one thing we can say that is true of all music? 

We all have music, we all have dance.  There is something in us, as human beings, that calls us to both create and listen to music.  We have a deep-seated need for music.  Why?  Why are people willing to pay hundreds of dollars, even thousands, to hear music?

Because music impacts us. 

It lifts us to God, as several people have said to me of Bach's music; inspires us to noble deeds; leads us to war (bagpipes, anyone?); drives us to anger and violence or releases tension.  Can any one of us imagine a celebration without music?  Has there ever been a wedding that did not include dancing--by the bride and groom, by all the guests? 

My son and his wife had their first dance to Come to Me, My Sweetest Friend by the Goo Goo Dolls, and later the entire crowd danced together in a huge circle, singing The Piano Man by Billy Joel.  I've also seen the entire Excel Center singing The Piano Man with Billy Joel, and been in crowds where hundreds and thousands are all singing Sweet Caroline--at the St. Paul Saints games with the Real Japanese Karaoke Guy leading the singing, and in Australia with Neil Diamond himself and thousands singing along.

Music connects us.  Music brings us joy.

More thoughts tomorrow in Part Two on Why Music?  And Angus's answer to Amy's comment.

Until then...I've gahhhta dance!  (Actually, I sort of do, but first I have to take a long walk to pick up more lemonade iced tea and they get kind of weird when I dance in the store aisles.  Maybe it's the cane and top hat they don't like.)


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Friday, April 7, 2017

Literature and Life: Throwing Stones

I have normally written about my weekly Night Writers meetings at our Night Writers blog.  For several reasons, I have not had the time to update that blog lately and so will write a bit here.  At last night's meeting:

  • I read two scenes of Simon working his way into ever-greater power, plotting, conniving, and turning people against one another
  • Stephanie read about Claude's funeral in the lumber camp in Secrets in the Timbers, and how it impacts Lally's decision to make a greater effort to break through Jared's walls
  • Lyn read a chapter giving a great deal of background on aunt Inga and her niece Alicia, explaining why Alicia hates Inga enough to kill her fiancĂ©
  • Judy read a re-write of Kate confronting Marshall, just as he's stolen the millions (or thinks he has) in See That House
  • Genny read a re-write of her experience being one of the featured guests, along with Bobby V and Fabian, seven years ago, at a big event in Minnetonka

Because we had 40 minutes left, I read something far outside my usual--a short story called Throwing Stones.  It is the tale of a man who has retreated to a cold, dark place--literally and figuratively--unable to carve the fantastic figures he once did.

On reading the piece out loud--a first draft, as compared to usually reading sections I've worked on at least somewhat--I decided it could be cut by 25-33%.  Apart from that, it was interesting to hear the opinions.  Although all agreed it was well-written, and Genny said it brought to mind Call of the Wild, the emotional reactions ranged from a low of "I hated it!" all the way up to "It's not a short story--it's a work of art!" 

It was more interesting to hear the reasons behind the opinions, and I think those reasons speak to the heart of the purpose of literature in our lives, what we may want from it versus what it should deliver.  The reactions to the story centered around the ending, which is tragic. 

Genny didn't care for the conclusion because it definitively ended the story, and she wanted it to go on and on, to hear more, to see it grow from what I read. 

And she's right.  There was a very, very different direction the story could have gone.  It could have had a beautiful ending, had Alan chosen differently--or chosen differently sooner, or tried harder to rectify his mistakes.  And right there is one of the points of literature.  In every single one of our lives, there are many directions we could have gone.  Or might still go. 

We often see more clearly in a story, than in our own lives, all the options, and in theory gain some wisdom from that.  This is, in fact, the basis of many stories: watching the two versions of a person's life unfold into two very different futures, hinging on one very small decision.  I may write another version in which Alan--or the dog--makes a different choice.

Lyn said she wants happy endings, while Judy felt that this particular tragic ending made the story meaningless.  Alan never learns, never grows, and remains stuck in his negative beliefs.  I would say that's only partially true.  He does reconsider his views and he does regret his actions.  But by the time he does, the die (along with the stones) has been cast.  His actions have consequences.

As a side note, Lyn's reading had the same motif.  How Inga treated Alicia as a child had long term and very tragic consequences.  Stephanie's, likewise, focused on a similar question of realizing we sometimes need to step up our efforts to reach out to others, to repair relationships, while Throwing Stones addresses other dimensions of that issue.

Ross, in contrast to hating the ending, believed the story was perfect as it was, that it couldn't have ended any differently.  This story is a work of art, he said, and you don't have to agree with a work of art.

On reflection, I tend to agree with him that for this story, this is the appropriate ending.  His comments called to mind my February Books and Brews with Ross Fishman, and our discussion of Russian literature--how it is often dark and tragic.  In fact, my March program had a similar discussion around the tragedy often found in Irish ballads and literature, too.  Yes, Throwing Stones is dark--literally and figuratively--and tragic. 

But, as Ross (Fishman) said of Russian literature, life is often dark and tragic.  Life doesn't always have a happy ending.  And the tales in Russian literature teach wisdom: to think about our actions ahead of time.  They warn us about how easy it is to back ourselves into corners that are difficult to get out of.  They warn us--over and over--that our choices and how we treat others may have long-term results that become steadily more difficult--and sometimes finally impossible--to turn around.

What is the purpose of literature?  What do you want from literature?  What do you believe makes a book literature rather than a story?


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