Music of Angels

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I was more than excited about having tickets to see Hans Zimmer in concert. I have enjoyed his soundtracks for years. I purchased the first one after watching the movie Greencard. Since then I’ve added The Last Samurai, Blackhawk Down, Sherlock and so many others to my collection of his works. Each of them is unique and captures the essence of the movie in which it was featured. Since I was going to attend the musical event in the company of my husband, daughter and two grandsons, I was even more excited about the evening, especially since my husband had suffered from a stroke after I had purchased the tickets. I thought it would be a grand way to celebrate life, but I expected to sit in the audience listening politely to some of my favorite music with perhaps a film clip or two to go along with the hits. I had no idea how much more wonderful the experience would actually be.

The concert began with Hans Zimmer entering the stage under a lone spotlight. He sat down at an upright piano and began playing. Slowly other musicians began to join him, adding a bit more interest to the tune. One by one they entered and the depth of the music increased until there was a full orchestra and a choir with the entire stage lit in cadence with the amazing sounds. It was one of the most musically exciting things that I have ever witnessed. It demonstrated the power of a single melody to expand with the help of multiple instruments and intricate arrangements. It was like a lesson in the development of a soundtrack or a symphony. I found myself almost imagining the workings of Mr. Zimmer’s mind as he develops the wondrous music that enhances so many movies. He manipulated our interest and our mood with the help of remarkably talented individuals who have worked joyfully with him for decades.

I was particularly taken by his use of amplified instruments to enhance the normal orchestral implements. There were guitars, violins and cellos all amped up and making the most incredible sounds. To use a terrible pun it was quite electrifying. I was particularly enchanted by an Asian woman playing an electric cello. She was wildly enjoying her work so much so that I was enchanted by her. The audience would learn that she has been playing since the age of three and that she practices for eight hours every day. Such dedication to a craft is almost unimaginable but it has paid off for her.

The concert featured some of Hans Zimmer’s most popular works including music from The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, Angels and Demons, Interstellar, Inception, Driving Miss Daisy and many more. With lighting designed to operate in time with the music it was a very interactive evening, and I was thrilled beyond anything that I hoped to see and hear. I swear that I actually felt the music on my skin and I’m certain that my seat was vibrating from the sounds. I know that there were moments when I became so emotionally involved with the music that I felt almost breathless. I even joked that some of the music was of the type that I imagined I might hear as I enter heaven one day. At least I hope that it will be that lovely!

After the concert I read an interview with Hans Zimmer in our local newspaper. He mentioned that he was concerned that so many orchestras worldwide are losing money and audiences. He fears that we may one day see the demise of such local musical troupes because they have failed to capture the interest of younger audiences. They struggle just to keep the older folks in the seats. He suggested that the orchestras employ more fun and innovation in their presentations, and he believes that the people will then come. He noted that the composers of the past were often way ahead of their time. They experimented with music and created new forms. It was the excitement of their compositions that made them famous. Now we seem to simply offer stale copies of their inventiveness. He urged musicians to instead be more daring as he has tried to be.

I completely agree with his analysis because I found his presentation to be so stunningly exciting that I would have stayed for hours more if only his musicians had continued to play. The concert hall was filled with people of every age group and everyone appeared to be enchanted. My grandsons who are college age were as taken by the concert as my husband and I who are in our sixties. The affair spoke to the genius of humans and their ability to create sounds that both please and tell a story. The level of brilliance and musicianship was astounding and mesmerizing.

As people we have incredible creative talents. What we have achieved scientifically and medically is a testament to our intelligence. It is in the arts, however, that we truly demonstrate an aspect of our essence that goes beyond utility. We enjoy art for arts sake, for our pleasure. Our ability to fill our environment with sights and sounds that elevate the human spirit is what truly makes us different from the animals. We take words and string them together in beautiful combinations. We draw lines and curves to create visions from our souls. We use sounds blended together to intensify our stories and our moods. We use our voices and play instruments crafted out of wood and metal and strings. What we have done is so amazing if we really stop to think about it.

I can’t imagine living in a time in which there were few opportunities to hear the best music from the finest composers. Because of our inventiveness anyone has the opportunity to listen to the sounds of angels wherever they may be. It is a gift that I enjoy and cherish every single day. I wonder that we don’t seem to fully appreciate such miracles born of our creativity.

Some seem to believe that we are teetering on a precipice as people. I happen to think that as long as we continue to celebrate and enjoy music and art in its many forms we will maintain our humanity. Music is universal. It brings us together without a need for translation. It speaks to each of us and burrows into our very souls.

As a new school year approaches I find myself thinking of a child will picking up a cello and brimming with excitement upon plunking the strings and creating music for the first time. Perhaps that youngster will one day be entertaining all of us. I can’t wait to hear from him/her. We so badly need such souls in our midst, so I hope we will be careful when making cuts to education. I can’t imagine anything more thoughtless than using arts programs as a way of saving money. We truly need our most creative individuals to keep us centered. It is in our natures to desire enrichment of our imaginations. Bravo to the musicians, singers, dancers, artists, and actors who make our world all the more beautiful with their gifts. Like Hans Zimmer I truly hope that we don’t lose any of them.

Ordinary Heroes

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Imagine that is it 1940, only a little over twenty years since World War I ended. Europe had been decimated by ‘the war to end all wars” as it was known. So many young men had been killed or maimed by the hideousness of trench warfare. Royal cousins had fought against one another in a seemingly unnecessary battle that left the common folk weary and eager for peace. In the midst of the rebuilding of nations along came Adolf Hitler with far reaching ambitions for making his country great again. At first the world stood back in stunned disbelief when he began a land grab starting with Czechoslovakia. By the time that he invaded Poland all of Europe understood that he had to be stopped. Britain joined other nations in agreeing to fight against the growing menace of German fascism. Thus in 1940, soldiers from Great Britain and France were engaged in a battle with Germany that had turned into a stunning rout, stranding 400,000 troops on the shores of Dunkirk with their backs to the sea.

It had been an inauspicious beginning to war for both Britain and France. At Dunkirk the soldiers from those countries were in retreat and things looked very bad. The Germans taunted the soldiers with flyers dropped from planes bragging that they had surrounded the Allies on all sides. The troops waited to be rescued and returned to Britain while being continually subjected to air raids from the Germans. They were like fish in a barrel. Added to the difficulty was the fact that big ships could not dock close to shore, so troops had to be ferried in small boats, a tedious and time consuming task. Even though the Brits were able to gaze across the channel and see the outline of home they may as well have been thousands of miles away. In that dark moment many wondered if Britain would be forced to surrender to Germany, leaving Hitler to overtake most of Europe with little or no resistance. It was an horrific possibility.

There are certain times in the history of mankind when ordinary people find the courage to do extraordinary things. Dunkirk was one of those moments. The British understood that they had to get their troops home safely at all costs or face the prospect of an invasion at home. The troops endured nine days of air battles that killed thousands of men, sunk ships and resulted in the loss of many Royal Air Force planes and pilots. It was a dispiriting time and one of the worst military defeats in the history of the country, but help game from a most unlikely source. When word of the disastrous situation reached the people of Britain an incredible thing happened. Fishermen and pleasure craft seamen sailed their boats across the channel to Dunkirk to assist in the rescue efforts. Many of them would become casualties as a result, but even more would bring hope and a way home to the thousands of soldiers who had all but given up any expectation of seeing Britain again.

It is a story of bravery and loyalty and love that Christopher Nolan has brought to the big screen with his usual genius. With an incredible cast, music from Hans Zimmer and sweeping camera angles the movie transports the audience into the tense and unnerving evacuation scene. It is an breathtaking film that provides the viewer with a birds eye view of both the fears and heroics of the soldiers and their leaders as well as the citizens who chose to risk their own lives to help their countrymen. Mostly it is a study of goodness overcoming evil, a subject that Nolan knows how to portray so well.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what happened at Dunkirk in a world that had quite evidently gone mad. I find myself wondering if those of us who live today would be able to muster the courage that the people of that era drew upon again and again until Hitler and his minions had been defeated. Would we have sat back helplessly or would we have been able to draw upon our inner strength to do what was ultimately right? I just don’t know. We seem to have somehow lost our willingness to confront evil. Maybe we have to literally be pushed to desperation before we will ever be able to rise up against the forces who bring so much violence and death to the world. We Americans certainly sat back watching even in 1940, hoping that all of the trouble would somehow just go away while we were safely an ocean away. Ultimately when we felt the sting of attack a couple of years later we too found the grit to join in the fight against an evil that had to be stricken from the earth. Maybe the truth is that none of us want to even think of war until there is no other reasonable choice.

I feel very uncomfortable with the state of things in the present time. We seem to have a president who is more worried about his reputation and popularity than with the needs of our country. We have citizens and lawmakers who are intent on fighting with one another rather than having genuine concern for the problems that plague us. I seriously wonder how we would fare as a people and a country if were we to suddenly find ourselves under attack. Would our dysfunction prevent us from doing what was necessary to save and protect our nation? Would we find a way to demonstrate the kind of determination to preserve freedom that the British citizens did back in 1940? Have we somehow lost our way, and if so will we ever be able to find our way back? These are the troubling thoughts that continually pass through my mind.

I would like to believe that in times of trouble we will be able to join together just as the people of New York City did after 9/11 and much like the citizens of Boston after the bombings at the marathon. Somehow I think that we as a people are in a state of lethargy, but our basic instincts to maintain liberty and justice at all costs still linger inside our hearts. I hope that if there comes a time when we are challenged just as our grandparents and great grandparents were we will find the determination that we need. I refuse to believe that we have all forgotten our role in promulgating the good rather than bad, love rather than hate.

Movies like Dunkirk are important. They draw on our emotions to challenge us to think. They push us to ask questions and learn from our human history. I recommend that all Americans who are over the age of thirteen see this film and take the time to educate themselves about what was happening in that time of long ago. Perhaps it will convince us of the need to consider what is really most important in our society today and to choose leaders who will help us to end our malaise, not further divide us.

When Children Lose Hope

Sad ChildA recent study reported that for the first time ever more middle school students are dying from suicide than from car crashes. Not only that, but the number of suicides among children as young as eight, nine or ten years old is also increasing. Researchers are only guessing as to why so many of our children and teenagers are ending their lives in such record numbers. The trend has become an epidemic that is rarely mentioned and far too many parents are unaware of the signs that there is trouble.

There are a number of possibilities suggested as to why suicide has become such a problem. Young people today increasingly see the world as being a dangerous and violent place. News stories often make them feel as though they are living under constant threat of harm. In addition there has been a breakdown of healthy relationships in many families leading children to feel insecure and sometimes even unloved. Ours is a fast paced world that stresses hard work and excellence. Some kids feel unrelenting pressures to excel in every aspect of their lives. Television and movies all too often depict suicide as a good way to end problems. Of course there is also the specter of social media which sometimes serves as a catalyst for bullying and the creation of unrealistic expectations of beauty, luxury and unending happiness. There is also a problem with adults, particularly parents failing to acknowledge the signs of depression and its power to lead their children to suicide.

There have always been young people who decided to take their lives, but never in the numbers that are being recorded today. When I was young virtually everyone sat down together with members of the family to share dinner. We took that opportunity to talk about the days’ events and to reinforce the idea that we cared for one another. All too often today the tradition of gathering around the table has been replaced with meals quickly consumed in front of the television or on the go. Members of the family are often moving in so many different directions that opportunities to actually talk with one another are brief or rare, especially once children become teenagers.

Latch key kids are abundant and they spend their afternoons unsupervised. They may become isolated by hours of playing video games or may even find inappropriate television programs to watch. They spend hours texting friends with their parents rarely being privy to what kind of messages are being exchanged. They may be engaged in dangerous situations for which they do not have the maturity to react in a healthy manner. In a sense they often lead secret and disturbing lives apart from their parents without anyone knowing the extent of the treacherous paths down which they are travelling.

There are ways that adults should more closely monitor their children rather than just assuming that all is well. When my own daughters were teenagers a very good friend advised me to find out as much about what they were doing as possible. I did so in both overt and covert ways. I talked with my girls constantly and observed their behaviors, watching for even subtle changes. I also listened to their friends and the parents of their friends to find out more information about their habits. I enlisted the help of an army of caring people to make sure that all was well. Even then I missed cues now and again.

My youngest daughter suffers from depression just as my mother did. She began to exhibit more and more isolated behavior and seemed to be in a continual state of tears when she was in high school. I remember the night when I found her sitting in the dark in her bedroom rocking back and forth while crying. I sat on the floor with her and held her in my arms as though she was a toddler, coaxing her to tell me about her feelings and what was driving them until she finally admitted that she felt lost and confused. I made an appointment for her to see a doctor the next day and began to engage in more and more frank conversations with her. She made it past that valley of despair, but she often told me that ultimately it was her profound belief in God and the sanctity of life that had prevented her from harming herself. Ironically my mother had often told me the same thing about her own moments of mental distress. Needless to say I rejoiced in knowing that by providing my child with a religious foundation I may have saved her life.

If parents see dramatic changes in their children it is dangerous to simply assume that the new behaviors are hormonal or typical. Warning signs come in the form of falling grades, difficulties sleeping, headaches or other physical manifestations. Children who lose interest in hobbies or friends are sending signals that something is very wrong. Changes in personality are another clue. Frequent tears, outbursts of anger, long periods of isolation inside a darkened room may all be pointing to problems that must be addressed. While teenagers are infamous for their constant texting, if this habit also appears to be associated with aggression or a lack of self esteem there may be a need for getting to the bottom of what kind of information is being exchanged.

We’ve always had bullies but never to the twenty four seven extent that some kids now endure. Social media all too often becomes a minefield for attacking youngsters. Sometimes those participating in the emotional assaults don’t even know the people that they are intimidating. For them it is just a sick game, but for the teenager who is the butt of their commentaries it can become unbearable. There is nowhere to hide, no way to stop the misery. They all too often hide what is happening out of a feeling of shame. Being so alone bears heavily on them. They need help but don’t know how to find it. It is up to adults to be conscious of such situations and work to assist the victims in retrieving their sense of security and self respect.

It’s become popular for some adults to refer to youth who struggle to adjust to the many challenges that they face as “snowflakes” as though they are simply so delicate that they cannot adjust to the realities of life. This is akin to the people who would urge my mother to get control of herself when she was in the midst of a psychotic episode as part of her bipolar disorder. At the time the chemistry of her brain was so askew that she did not possess the power to stop the madness that engulfed her. She needed the help of caring family members, friends and medical professionals to get her life back on track. The lack of understanding that she continually faced made her challenges even more difficult than they needed to be. Such it is for youngsters who are in crisis. Shaming them for falling victim to depression so debilitating that they have suicidal thoughts is not an answer. Instead we all must be vigilant in assisting anyone whose ideation becomes dark and worrisome.

Teachers are often the first to notice problems with a young person. Instead of ignoring such concerns it is paramount that they contact the school counselor, the nurse, the parents or all of the above. Sometimes kids are so good at hiding their pain that their families are the last to know that there are difficulties. Honest conversations have to take place, always punctuated with love and concern. At the same time we should teach our kids to be good friends who are willing to let us know if someone is struggling more than normal. We must then either contact the school or the parents to alert them to what is happening. Those are difficult conversations, but they may save lives. 

Rescuing our children from thoughts of suicide should be of paramount concern to all of us. We need to spend more time talking with them and helping them to feel safe in confessing their problems. We need to watch for the warning signs and take aggressive and loving action before the worst happens. It is up to all of us to bring down the distressing suicide statistics among the youngest in our society. We need to begin some difficult discussions with ourselves, each other and our children. Nothing else that we do is more important. 

Choose Experiences

PossessionsI have accumulated lots of things over the years. Some of what I own was handed down to me from my elders, other items are treasured gifts from friends and family. I still possess many of the wedding presents that I received almost fifty years ago. Of course I have kept souvenirs from vacation trips and art work from my children and students. There are all of the usual household and clothing items, not to mention furniture and books. I own music and musical instruments, hobby supplies and gardening implements. I keep wrapping paper and greeting cards and decorations for virtually every occasion. I enjoy my collection of little pigs that are supposed to bring me good luck and smile at the thought of the china that my brothers purchased for me using all of their savings when they were still young boys. My possessions represent a lifetime of accumulation and most of the objects are actually somewhat sentimental to me. Still, I remind myself continuously that they are just things and of little value when compared to people and experiences.

When I think back on my life I hardly remember buying something, but I always vividly recall the special times that I have spent with the people that I love. Thinking of the Sundays that I spent on the banks of Clear Lake with my cousins back when I was a kid warms my heart. I am literally able to hear the humming of the motor boats that were pulling skiers over the water. I can taste the salty spray and feel the heat of the sun on my neck. I recall our antics as we jumped the waves and lowered chicken on strings into the water in hopes of catching crabs. I see my mom and her siblings and they are so young and beautiful and fun to be around. I’m not sure what I purchased in those years or even what I wore, but I am certain that those days we spent together were magical.

I can still see and hear every single detail of my first date with my husband Mike. It’s funny how I knew on that day that I had met my soulmate. I’ve never so instantly clicked with anyone else in my life. We started a conversation back then that we have never completed. He was so incredibly handsome as he arrived looking as though he had just stepped out of the pages of GQ magazine. We saw The Flight of the Phoenix at a theater at Gulfgate. We ran into a couple of my high school classmates and I was proud to be in the company of someone as stunning as Mike. Later he took me on the first of the many adventures we would share. Our destination was to a downtown musical venue called The Cellar that was unlike any experience I had ever before enjoyed. I would later tell my friends that I thought I had met the young man that I was destined to marry.

I am able to outline every detail associated with the births of my children from the time that I learned that I was carrying them all the way through the pains of labor. Of course those wonderful child rearing years were most decidedly the best of my life. We really did have fun on Anacortes Street as they grew into lovely women. Best of all were our vacation trips that took us all over the United States in our different trucks. We slept under the stars in a canvas tent that resembled a circus big top. We laughed and shared stories and marveled at the wonders of our land. Summer after summer we traveled to all of the national landmarks making memories that have never been forgotten.

I can still feel the burning in my muscles as we trudged up the rocky path in the middle of the night on our way to the top of Long’s Peak. We watched the lights come on in the towns below and made it to the Boulder Field by dawn. We weren’t able to make it any farther because the girls were just not old enough and strong enough to climb over the huge rocks, but we felt such a sense of accomplishment and that hike became one of my all time favorite memories.

I still think back on my daughter’s milestones, their first steps and words, their school days and accomplishments. I am often reminded of their programs and performances and the glory of their graduations. Of course their weddings were wonderful even though I was so busy that I hardly had time enough to eat. Best of all were the births of my seven grandchildren who brought new and unparalleled joy into my life. Spending time with them and watching them grow has provided me a whole new set of joyful experiences.

I always loved my work and the educators and students that I met in that capacity. So many of those people are still numbered among my friends. We shared long days together, some of which were stressful at the time but always in the end we felt that incredible sense of having accomplished something very personal and important. I suspect that we are still as close to one another as we are because of the real significance of our work together.

I’ve had so much fun over the years with very special friends. I loved the times when my friend Pat and I spent weekends taking our children to movies and the 59 Diner. I still laugh at our visits with Linda and Bill and the way it took us hours to actually drive away whenever we had announced that it was time to leave. I treasure the trip to Austria that we shared with Monica and Franz as the new year dawned in 2005. I smile with pleasure at the memory of bridge games with Susan and Nancy. I love the dinners and lunches with friends and students that keep our relationships thriving and provide all of us with feelings of being loved. The concerts in which I saw the Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney were sensational. Seeing The Phantom of the Opera  on Broadway was the culmination of a dream.

It may have taken me a bit too long to get here, but I now understand the critical importance of an undisputed truth, “We should all invest in experiences rather than things.” At the end of the day even if we lose every possession, nobody will ever be able to steal the joy that we have felt from the moments in which we have seen glorious places and been with people that we love. That is what we should seek. That is what is most important.

Bliss

18622147_10212589589995817_4316414510225396392_nI got my first real job when I was fifteen years old. Our family physician was looking for a summer replacement for the receptionist in his clinic. In spite of the fact that I looked about ten years old at the time he took a chance by hiring me. After that I worked for him each summer until I graduated from high school. I also did babysitting on weekends from the age of twelve, and I was particularly popular because I was always available since I was a dateless wonder in those days. My foray into the world of work continued unabated from those times until I finally retired a few years back. If you count tutoring gigs that I still do you might say that I have never completely stopped earning a paycheck, but I have definitely slowed down. Now I am still constantly on the go, but mostly in the form of trips here and there. I like to travel whenever the opportunity presents itself because I am fully aware of the reality that the day may come when I am no longer able to do so.

I take great delight in my little jaunts no matter how simple they may be. I find it quite exciting to leave my own backyard and venture to places that are far away from home. I’ve learned a great deal about humans and nature and how much we are actually alike from my travels. The people and places that I have encountered have generally been quite welcoming, and I discover something new each time that I explore new horizons. Still, I have learned that there is much to be celebrated right at home. I don’t have to hit the road to find the bliss of adventure which is often staring me in the face in my own hometown.

After travels to New Orleans and Cancun this summer I needed to recharge my batteries so to speak by sticking around Houston for a time. When I learned that my daughter was embarking on some landscaping and renovation projects around her house I eagerly volunteered to be part of the work crew because being a fixer upper is in my DNA. My ancestors were farmers and builders and somehow I feel a spark of genetic compatibility with them each time that I hold dirt in my hands or transform broken objects and rooms into things of beauty. In an unexplainable way I get as much joy out of such enterprises as jetting away to picturesque destinations.

Thus I found myself spending three days working the soil and puttering with the plants in my daughter’s backyard. I listened to the birds chattering and announcing my intrusion into their domain and heard the dreamy sound of a train whistle in the distance. Somehow I felt a kinship with all of the ancestors whom I had never met but felt myself to be so much like. I wondered what they would think of me and my family, their descendants who have done so well. We are all educated and part of the middle class while they were lucky to go to school beyond the fifth grade. They tilled the soil to make the food that would carry them through heartless winters while I was creating a tropical paradise beside my daughter’s pool. I thought of how far our family had come, and I felt a burst of pride and gratitude for the blessings that have been bestowed upon us as a direct result of the extreme sacrifices of my family members of so long ago.

A few days later I was feting my father-in-law with wine from the Texas hill country, shrimp from the waters around New Orleans and steak from our local HEB. It was an intimate gathering with just me, my husband, and my in-laws. We laughed and spoke of this and that and I thought of how much I loved being with them. In fact if I had to choose between a junket to Europe or an afternoon with them, there would be no contest. I would want to spend my time just enjoying their presence.

I suppose that I have reached that age of wisdom when I understand what true bliss actually is. It has little to do with great wealth or possessions and everything to do with treasuring the moments that we have whether they be simple or extravagant. Being truly and fully part of the passing parade that defines our lives is what matters most. In the long run all of the money on earth can’t buy contentment. It has to come from inside our hearts.

I fully understand that each of us needs certain material possessions to insure our well being, but our constant pursuit of greater and greater riches is a poor way to spend our time, especially when we consider that we never really know how much more of it we will have to enjoy the people and places that bring us joy. It is up to us to find pleasure no matter where we are, and it isn’t all that difficult to do.

My husband and I have taken to eating dinner outside each evening when the temperature cools down just a bit. We like to watch the wildlife that joins us during our nightly meals with great regularity. We enjoy the antics of a particular lizard whose injured tail has given him the dubious name of Stubby. We listen for the doves who greet us from the rooftop and the bluejays who fly from one tree to another. We catch quick glances of hummingbirds who flit around the yard so fast that we can barely keep up with them. Our little routine is a joyful experience that brings us together quietly and with little fanfare. It gives us the kind of bliss that we have learned to more fully appreciate.

I am no fool. I realize that I have been truly blessed and that there are those who never received the gift of time to rest and enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of labor. Even more so because I understand that truth, I am grateful for the small and the great pleasures that come my way. I have learned to find the exquisite beauty of a moment and it is a wonderful way to experience life.