Saturday, July 23, 2016

Before it's Too Late

With so many disturbing accounts of mass shootings in the news, I've been thinking about the little boy who lived next door to us when our children were young. I'll call him Wayne. Wayne would be nearly forty now, the same age as my son. I would not be surprised to see Wayne's name in the news attached to a mass shooting. This child was seriously disturbed. Even at an early age, the signs were there.

Wayne routinely set fires in the empty lot beside his house; he placed live frogs in buckets of bleach and watched them disintegrate; he threw his own parakeet against the wall and killed it; he would suddenly, without warning, explode with rage and lash out violently at anyone who happened to be in his path. One day, he emerged from his house, ran to our yard where my son was playing, and punched him in the mouth, dislodging a permanent tooth.  Another day, I watched in horror from my kitchen window as Wayne climbed to the top of our backyard play structure and, before I could stop him, hurled himself over the railing to the ground, breaking his own arm.

What factors turn an innocent child into a monster with no regard for human life? I learned that Wayne's father made him watch porn with him and that his mother (whose own behavior was erratic) was bipolar. She once confided in me that her husband abused her sexually. More than once, Wayne's school counselor arranged for him to receive intensive therapy at a residential facility, but each time, his mother pulled him out early because, selfishly, she "wanted him at home."

What is the profile of a mass murderer with seemingly no conscience or remorse?  Was Wayne destined to become one? How can we identify and help such children before it is too late?  Can they be helped or are they simply wired differently?

Peter Langman, a psychologist in Allentown, Pennsylvania, has studied the profiles of mass shooters. Following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, he was quoted in the Huffington Post as saying, "Our culture and media (violent movies and video games) reinforce that manhood is about attaining power. Violence is glorified as a way to get that power."

According to my research, there is a fairly standard profile when it comes to mass murderers. They feel rejected and isolated by their families or by society, in general. They are almost always white, male loners who lack both self-esteem and empathy for others. In most cases, they have been either abused by a parent, bullied by their peers or both. Interestingly, while mental illness may be a factor, most people who are mentally ill are not violent.

I sincerely hope Wayne received the necessary help to grow into a responsible citizen rather than the mass murderer he seemed destined to become. I hope he found healing from his demons of self-hatred and intense anger. Most of all, I hope he finally received the acceptance and friendship that we, his neighbors, couldn't risk because of concern for our own children's safety.        

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

My Next Project

I love blogging, but some days I have to make the choice to write a blog or write a chapter of my current novel. Lately I've been choosing the novel. The working title is I JUST WANT TO GO HOME. It's the story of Abigail Jordan, a typical middle class teenager growing up in James City County, Virginia who finds her family in the unexpected position of being homeless. Here's a sneak preview from Chapter 2:

        A few weeks later, Mom called another of her dreaded family meetings. If I thought the conference of three years earlier was life changing, well, this one topped even the news that Dad was dying. Mom announced she would have to get a job. But that wasn't the worst part. I'll never forget her next words. She looked at me with sad eyes and said, "Honey, I'm afraid you're going to have to put off going to college. We just don't have the money, and besides, I'll need you here to help with your brothers when I go to work." In stunned silence, I had stopped listening at the word "college." Not go to college? I had been planning this important milestone of my life for four years or more. What was she saying? That I couldn't pursue my dream of becoming a documentary film-maker? There was so much to learn! I had eagerly anticipated studying how to produce, stage, shoot and edit film. I needed to learn about interviewing, writing a script, funding, copyright issues and so much more. Finally I had narrowed down my choices to either New York Film Academy or Los Angeles Film School, and both schools had offered me early acceptance.

        "What about my college fund?" I asked through hot tears stinging my cheeks. I didn't want to cry, but I couldn't help myself. "Dad has been saving for years."

        "I know, Sweetheart, but I've had to use that money to pay the mortgage. We haven't had any income for three years, and our health insurance paid less than half of your father's medical expenses. I've already dipped into his retirement fund. I just don't see any way. Maybe after I work for a while and get caught up on the bills we can think about it again." I was stunned. I absolutely didn't see that bombshell coming. How could I not go to college? It was inconceivable. I had known what I wanted to do since the seventh grade and had meticulously planned my whole career. I had to get out of that room before I said something I would regret. Anger, disappointment and confusion swirled together in my brain, threatening to explode before I could stop myself. I stood, turned, and ran up the stairs to my room, leaving Mom to deal with my brothers who always cried when they saw me crying. "Please, Honey! Try to understand!" I heard her call after me, but I had not one ounce of understanding left in me. I thought when Dad finally died, life would get back to normal. Mom would be the parent again, instead of me. I would go off to college and come home for holidays. It was the natural order of things. Wasn't it?

Does this plot sound intriguing?  Does I JUST WANT TO GO HOME sound like a book you would be interested in reading? Please be honest in your assessment. Your comments will help me decide whether to move forward or to let this one go.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Be Careful What You Say

As a recent retiree, I already miss many aspects of my job: my wonderful colleagues, teaching my favorite subject (music), and attending Musikgarten workshops to learn more effective ways to teach my favorite subject. Most of all, I miss working with children. Yes, children can be disruptive, self-centered, impulsive, and just plain challenging (especially in a group setting), but they are also refreshingly honest and unspoiled by the cynicism that inevitably creeps into our adult perspectives.

When my own children and grandchildren were young, I remember being awed by their sense of wonder at everything they encountered, from a line of ants marching along the sidewalk to their own belly buttons. Observing the world through the eyes of a toddler--who has just mastered the skill of walking and is still struggling with the art of verbal communication--is like watching a weightless balloon as it is released from it's tether. It begins to soar through the sky unfettered, not caring where it goes, simply reveling in the journey.

I adore conversing with young children because they are concrete thinkers who express themselves in absolute terms. It is so interesting to hear their literal, yet often unique, translations of English words with multiple meanings. For example, when my daughter, at two years old, was playing in her sandbox one day, I reminded her to wipe off the sand before coming in the house. She reached down and started brushing her hands back and forth on the surface of the sand in the box. She was doing exactly what I had asked her to do, but still had sand all over her clothes.

Often when teaching five- and six-year-old children to read music, I found that if I weren't specific with my words, the students could become confused. When asking them to place a note on a line of the staff, I needed to specify that the line must intersect the note head. Otherwise the note appeared to be in a space. Musicians quickly discover that a slight misplacement makes a huge difference in how the note is interpreted.

One time I asked a young student to place a cardboard circle (note-head) in the space above line-three of the rope staff I had constructed on the floor. Obediently, he suspended the circle in the air about a foot above the floor. Literally, he followed the directions I had given.                

Young children, unless their needs are not being met, possess no malice. Their motives are pure and their speech patterns are delightful. Here are just a few memorable examples from my thirty years of teaching early childhood music:

Jimmy (age 8): "Mrs. Freeman, why is the top of your head black?"
Me: "Because I'm not a natural blonde."
Jimmy: "Oh."

Avery (age seven): "Wednesdays are my best days."
Me: "Why?"
Avery: "Because on Wednesdays I get to have music twice. . . once at my regular school and again at music school."
Me (smiling and thinking): "I love this kid!"

Alyssa (age 3): "When I was a little kid, I sucked my thumb."

Me: "Who can tell me why it's important to sit or stand tall when we sing?"
Ben (age 4): "'Cause if you scrunch like this (gives a dramatic demonstration) you might get a cramp, and when your mom comes to pick you up, she'll think you're a pretzel, and she'll take some other kid home."
Me: "Um."
Me (singing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" in solfege): "do, do, sol, sol, la, la, sol, etc. What song am I singing?"
Four-year-old students: No response
Me (same tune but switching to a neutral syllable): "Baa, baa, baa, baa, baa, baa, baa, etc." Now what song am I singing?"
Jack: "Well, at first I thought it was the star song, but now I think it's a song about sheep."

Me (reviewing the previous week's lesson): "When there are two voice parts, it's called a duet; when there are three, its a trio. What do we call it when there are four parts?"
Madison (age six): "A crowd."

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Children in a World of Peace

A very special person, Rev. Marvin Willard, once gave me a framed picture inscribed with these words: "If everyone prayed the same prayer . . . God would grant it."  This text is surrounded by colorful drawings depicting loving, joyful families from all corners of the earth. The picture entitled, "Children in a World of Peace," has hung in my office for about twenty-five years. I've passed by it hundreds--maybe thousands--of times. Occasionally, I would stop and read the inscription, but I never really studied the drawings until today. Two weeks ago, on the day of my retirement, I placed it in a box--along with all the other office supplies I'll likely never use again--brought it home, and put it in a closet, out-of-sight, out-of-mind . . . or so I thought. But since reading last week's headlines, the picture has called to me again and again until finally, I had to dig through that box, pull it out and study it.

Just imagine what would happen if every person on earth stopped at the very same moment and prayed for peace. Do you think God would even consider not granting it? What if the entire human race decided to set aside prejudice that says, in essence, "I'm more worthwhile than you" or "I'm right; you're wrong?" What if we joined hands across the world--black hands, white hands, brown hands, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindi, Buddhists, regardless of age, gender or sexual preference? What if, instead of defending our stance as the only way, we simply respected each other's differences and decided to replace hate (or misunderstanding) with simple love and acceptance?

As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is the "way, the truth and the life." But even when Jesus walked the earth, He took people as He found them and loved them as they were. He taught His followers that God, the Father, is a God of love. He gave them a new commission: "You shall love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself."

What if we humans stopped playing judge and jury of our fellow humans and, instead, accepted our own fallibility. What if, instead of questioning the wisdom and condemning the practices of others, we humbled ourselves and looked deeply and honestly into our own hearts and minds, seeking to change only ourselves? I'm convinced God would answer our collective prayer. I think God (Allah, Jahweh, Abba, Jehovah, or whatever you call the Divine) would grant it. Perhaps then our children (and grandchildren) could finally live in a world of peace.  

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Conjurer

My husband, Carl, is convinced he is a conjurer.  If something comes to pass, he insists he was just thinking about it. He has conjured a tick crawling on his leg, a sudden thunderstorm, an unsuspected perpetrator in a movie mystery, and many an unexpected visitor or phone call . . . according to his after-the-fact revelations.

Let me give you an example of Carl's inflated sense of power. He has been a die-hard New York Yankee fan since his little league coach took his whole team to Baltimore to see the likes of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris play against the Orioles. Ever since that game more than fifty years ago, he has worn his Yankee hat all day after a win, but if they lose, he takes it very personally, leaving his hat in the closet. You see, because they lost a game once while he was watching, his conjuring ability holds the power to jinx all subsequent games. Therefore, he only views the games later on the Internet. If he watched the game in real time, of course, they would lose. Coincidence? Hum! Conjuring? Not even!

Now, lest you think I'm totally unconvinced of my husband's supernatural ability, I should mention that his self imposed label as a conjurer started a few months after his mother died. It was nearly Christmas, and he was thinking about her as he left his office for the day. He turned to shut the door and there on the floor lay a Christmas card. He picked it up and, sure enough, it was from his mom. Okay, maybe it fell from atop the bookshelf where it had been saved from a previous Christmas or maybe it was pushed out the back of his desk drawer as he closed it. Of course, I have only his word (and his "Boy Scout honor") that he was thinking about her at that precise moment, but I confess I had never seen this particular card before, and it was addressed to him, alone. While my mother-in-law was alive, her cards always included our children and me. Did he conjure it?  I'll let you draw your own conclusion.  As for me, I believe there was, indeed, a supernatural force at work, but I'm convinced it was the Holy Spirit sending my husband the clear message that his mother is at peace.      

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Equal Access

These days, I do most of my reading on Kindle. As soon as I finish a novel, I quickly download another from Amazon. My virtual library contains hundreds of volumes and has space for hundreds more. But I still relish holding a real paper book in my hands, one that has pages to turn and return to again and again, one that has margins in which to scribble notes and stick Post-its, one that I can place on my real book shelf like a trophy.

Some books are just too precious to let go even if I never turn their pages again--like anything written by Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison. Then, there is SIMPLE ABUNDANCE by Sarah Ban Breathnach and JESUS CALLING by Sarah Young, also THE LANGUAGE OF LETTING GO by Melody Beattie. These are among the missives that have changed who I am at the core.

I didn't set out to cherish only books written by female authors. In fact, I do read and appreciate a great variety of authors, many of whom are male. But female writers speak to my soul. Perhaps it is because "Women are intrinsically mystical. That is, we tend to experience direct connection with the Divine." These words are not mine.  I wish I had written them, but they are quoted from Joan Borysenko's book, A WOMAN'S JOURNEY TO GOD.  Several years ago I received this book as a gift. I placed it on my book shelf and there it stayed until this morning when something (or Someone) prodded me to open it.

Borysenko points out that women long for spiritual expression in a religious world historically dominated by men. We seek a God that is not exclusively male for males, a God who includes us, respects us, finds use for our particular gifts, and loves us both equally and uniquely. "God as jealous, punitive, white Anglo-Saxon male with a long beard and a longer arm lacks appeal for contemporary women," says Borysenko. She goes on to express, eloquently, what woman have longed to say for centuries, "Many women are tired of repenting for Eve's imagined sins and are ready to reclaim the energy that has been lost to religious traditions in which the framers were singularly unconcerned either with women's spirituality or with their basic rights and gifts as human beings."

Are Borysenko's words anti-Bible? Are they blasphemous? Are they male-bashing? The answer is "yes," if you are a white Anglo-Saxon male who is convinced that only his faith-journey counts and that the Bible was written only for him and his kind. But Jesus was neither white nor Anglo-Saxon, and Jesus did not exclude women (or ethnics or Gentiles or Lepers or prostitutes or homosexuals or pillars of the organized church) from His teachings or His love. "ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)." In other words, we are ALL equally in need of God's mercy and forgiveness.

Granted, women have come pretty far since Borysenko's book was published in 1999. Many have even succeeded in becoming ordained clergy. Clearly they understand that Jesus's promise, "Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you (John 15:9)" does not exclude them. I'm convinced that the Divine with whom I commune every day intends for ALL to have equal access to our father/mother God.              

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Let it Be

Each day that we wake up is a day filled with new possibilities. No matter how difficult, challenging or non-productive yesterday was, today is a clean slate--an opportunity to start fresh. That's the beauty of life. But not everyone can look forward to tomorrow as we middle class Americans can. Oh, sure! We have plenty about which to complain, especially in this election year. But we also have choices, freedoms, more-than-basic comforts, health care, and even vacations. We live amid so much abundance that we abuse our bodies and become easily bored with our daily existence. We seek constant stimulation, entertainment, screen time . . . input, input, input.  

What if we made a conscious effort to slow the pace,"smell the roses," and just be for a few minutes each day?  What if we took those moments to reflect on our blessings and say, "thank you" to the Creator?  What if we decided to do one kind deed each day without expecting anything in return? What if we used our freedom not as a privilege but as an opportunity to make someone else's life better?  What if we stopped trying to control everyone and everything and, instead, allowed God to be the judge of ourselves and others?

Achieving a peaceful existence sounds easy, but finding peace requires letting go, which is always harder than holding on--holding on to prejudices, perceived insults, insecurities, assumptions, anxieties, possessions, and people. I think the Beatles hit, "Let it Be" perfectly expresses the idea of letting-go and letting-God.  Paul McCartney might have been a genius when he wrote the lyrics or maybe, like the Paul of Ephesians, he simply allowed himself to be a conduit:

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

Yeah, let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

When the broken hearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be

For though they may be parted
There is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be

Yeah, let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
There will be an answer, let it be
Yeah, let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
You know there's gonna be an answer, let it be

And when the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines on me
Shine until tomorrow, let it be

I wake up to the sound of music
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

Let it be, oh no, let it be, let it be, let it be
There will be an answer, let it be, let it be
You know there's gonna be an answer, let it be
Oh, let it be

Friday, July 1, 2016

Retirement: Day One

Today I am officially retired.  After forty-five years working in the field of music education/ministry, it feels strange to know that I needn't hurry through my blog to get dressed and go to work.  In fact, I can stay in my P.J.s all day if I so choose . . . and I might do just that.

Walking out the door yesterday was bittersweet. I won't miss the administrative duties or the church politics or the twelve-hour days or sacrificing important family events.  I won't miss the evening classes and rehearsals, rescheduling snow days, working during dinner time or hauling instruments and other heavy equipment from place to place. I won't miss meetings that last until 9:00 PM (after teaching all day).

What I will miss are the faces of hundreds of precious children that flashed before my eyes as I left the building yesterday.  Many of them are grown now with children of their own. Some have chosen careers in music.  I feel genuinely rewarded and truly grateful to have played a small part in each child's life.  If they remember me, I hope their memories are of someone who cared about each one, not only as a potential musician but as a valued child of God.  I hope and pray that I was able to have a positive impact on their lives.

I will miss the amazing staff of professionals and dedicated volunteers with whom I surrounded myself. Where I once called them valued, gifted employees, now I get to count them as lifelong friends.

I will miss the remarkable Musikgarten philosophy and curriculum. What a privilege it has been to teach such a comprehensive, holistic program since its inception!  I will be eternally grateful to Dr. Lorna Heyge for her vision, her sacrifice and her life's work to bring the very best educational method to fruition.      

There have been so many magical moments in my career!  I couldn't begin to describe just one that stands out.  But, administrative duties and church politics aside, I thank God for the privilege of witnessing and celebrating the intrinsic beauty of each child's soul.