Playing in The New Westchester Symphony Orchestra

         I’m having a blast playing in the NWSO, but more than that, I’m learning so much.  I think to some extent that’s probably true for most of the orchestra members since we’re getting pieces into our fingers that I’m guessing most of us have never played before, but it may also be true for me in a different way since I know so little about classical music.

            Growing up, even though I was deaf for a while and so missed some of the more popular songs from those years, I heard lots of music.   I heard hymns both in church and on records, lots of folk songs (since my mother adored the Weavers and more specifically Pete Seeger and both bought records of the songs and took me to concerts), Broadway show tunes, and records of music that was popular when my mother was young (especially Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Any Williams and Perry Como) to which Simon and Garfunkel and Glen Campbell were later added.  My grandmother would often putter her way through a piece of sewing or dusting singing songs from her youth, especially Dolores del Rio’s Ramona and the Spanish ballad Juanita.  I also spent a lot of time at my next door neighbor’s home where I’d hear different pop music—songs by groups like The Cyrkle, Little Richard, and The Coasters.  At school, as I learned to play trumpet, I learned “band songs,” snippets of various pieces, mostly children’s songs of one kind or another and as I learned guitar I learned “Peter Paul and Mary” type songs.  And of course there was other music to which my friends and I listened—the Beatles, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, John Denver, the Stones, Elton John, and the like.

What I almost never heard, though, was classical music. No one in my family liked classical music and if it came on on a radio or a TV show, someone would quickly switch the channel or turn it off. Because of that, the only time I’d hear work by any classical composers was when I would sneak into the church and listen to an organ concert from the steps outside the sanctuary or when we’d sing something classical in children’s choir.

As an adult, I learned a little more about classical music, but still not in much of a systematic way.  But now, playing with the NWSO, I’m beginning to get at least a basic feel for some of the composers we’re playing. As I try to get Grieg’s Peer Gynt into my fingers and mind, I’m becoming more aware that “In the Hall of the Mountain King” isn’t just a theme used in the movies Inspector Gadget or The Social Network. Instead I begin to see both how it fits into a larger body of work and some of the unique challenges it offers. Right now it may seem that I may never be able to get play all the notes in the Flute 2 part of “Jupiter” but I’m getting a lot more of a sense of Holst’s The Planets as I try.  And through both working on the music and listening to Ben’s comments on what a composer is doing in a piece, I’m beginning to get a broader sense of various time periods and styles.  Most of all though, as I get to explore and experience this music with a really nice group of people, I’m coming to appreciate some wonderful music that I might otherwise never have had a chance to come to know so well or enjoy so much!

Alif the Unseen


The first book I read in 2014, or more accurately, finished in 2014—was G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen—and I SO hope the rest of the books I read this year are like it.  Alif is unlike anything I’ve read before—fresh and exciting, a combination of fantasy, Sufi poetry, politics, technology, action, romance, Muslim theology and more.  Drawing on images from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and weaving them into an Arab spring spy thriller that straddled the worlds of Arab elite and poor, Muslim and Hindu, human and jinn, high and low technology, the book takes on questions of faith, revolution, expectations, and reality.   What a way to start a new year!


Memories of 2013

2013 feels like it was a year filled with change—of community leaving and community building, of trying to balance and rebalance what was already in my life with what was being added and subtracted, of considering moving to be part of a new community, and of figuring out what to hold onto and what to let go of.  The changes haven’t quite settled in all the way yet, but at least most mornings now I wake up and have some sense of who I am and what my day will probably be like.  So thinking back, here’s an overview of things from 2013 that stood out.

In January I began a new job as Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Hudson River.  I had very little sense of what the work would be like or whether I’d like it but people were very generous with their help as I learned the job.  I’m convinced that I’ll need at least two years at it before I have a sense of what it’s really all about –this year, for example, there are lots of things related to the 2014 General Assembly that I didn’t encounter last year—but what I’ve learned so far is that I’ve got a group of presbytery staff colleagues who all want to move the church into the 21st century (although there are days when I’d settle for it moving into the 20th century) and who I like.

Like several other months of 2013, February was a month that seemed focused on new skills.  Early in the month Kathy and I, along with the rest of the Roots & Wings team, hosted a Transition Town training weekend focusing on resiliency as we change from an oil-based lifestyle to other, more environmentally healthy options.  Then at the end of the month I participated in a week long Mediation Skills Training Institute led by Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center.  Although I’d already done mediation training from a legal perspective, this institute was geared to working in non-legal settings and seemed much more concerned about the people involved in the mediation than the courses I’d had in law school. Richard was a great trainer covering lots of material that I found immediately helpful in various church settings.  I’ve appreciated having the extra skills!  The “fun” thing that stood out from February—and really from the year– was Sleep No More, an experience that my son Dan shared with me.  It was an experience that was hard to describe—sort of like unscripted theater, sort of like an adventure—but very enjoyable.   I loved the evening—both for the one-on-one time it gave me with Dan and because it may be the closest experience I’ll have in my lifetime to being on a holodeck.  It gave me such delight!

March and April seem to me to have been largely spent adjusting to change.  Kathy’s federal grant—and with it her job–ended and, given the job market, she took early retirement.  Both of us were also saying goodbye to South Church, a congregation and a people that I so love, and all the programs and activities we were involved with through that connection.  For me there was the sorting through of an office that had more than 20 years of memories as part of it, the tying up of loose ends in various church programs that needed to continue to operate after I left but would no longer have staff, the making my way through Lent, Holy Week, and Easter aware that I would be experiencing it in the South Church way for the last time, and then on the last Sunday of April, a service filled with goodbye saying that left me in tears, both out of gratitude for such a wonderful congregation and out of grief at leaving it.  April also contained a chance to see Pippin, one of my favorite musicals of all time, on Broadway –purposely chosen for the end of April as a way to provide some “change-of-scene” from the leave-taking,

May found Kathy and I on our way to Louisville, driving down to my formal denominational stated clerk training.  Given all the changes—and given the flexibility of Kathy’s not having to be at an office and my not having to lead Sunday worship—we were able to take several days to get there, stopping at Berkeley Springs, West Virginia one night and having a meal that was memorable—for the food, the conversation with one of the owners, and the view—at the Panorama at the Peak Restaurant.   When we arrived in Louisville, we were pleasantly surprised.  In the past I’d only been in the institutional convention center part of the city (which is where the PCUSA has its offices and where my meetings usually are) but friends took us to other areas that were more enjoyable.  There were wonderful restaurants- like Grape Leaf (thanks Robin and Chris) and Ramses (thanks Russ) with lots of good vegetarian, gluten-free food and conversation.  On the way back from the training, we drove to Indiana, first to see the Indiana University campus where Kathy went to college and then to visit family in Indianapolis.

While part of the summer contained another trip to Louisville—this time for Big Tent, which I’ve written about in an earlier posting—there were also trips to the Cape, to the Northampton/Amherst area (where I really enjoyed seeing both the permaculture lawns in one neighborhood and the Emily Dickinson Museum in another), and to Nantucket to see Jon and Ilona’s new home. There were lots of live music, performances, and movies of various kinds.  I finished up my last course for a gardening certificate from the New York Botanical Garden and learned how to lacto-ferment from Sr. Catherine Grace at the Bluestone Farm community (a organic, permaculture, intentional community that I’d love to participate in more regularly).  Also, during the summer and early fall, having stepped away from one community that meant so much to me, I began to consciously put time into deepening relationships with other communities I’ve been a part of—going to several regional gatherings of the Ecumenical Order of Franciscans (a “third order” in which I’m a novice) and attending weekly rehearsals with the New Westchester Symphony Orchestra (and performing my first concert with them in October).

October took Kathy and me to Chicago for the national gathering of Covenant Network, where we attended worship and workshops on topics like same-gender marriage and denominational overture possibilities.  The gathering also gave us a chance to spend time with friends that we’re not able to see on a regular basis. While we were in Chicago it was very cold and rainy but we managed to see some of the city, taking the architectural river cruise as well as doing a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. I also had the chance to introduce Kathy to my college friends, Bill Daley and Betsy Butterworth, over brunch before we headed back to New York.

I was glad to stay in the New York area for the rest of the fall.  Kathy and I spent a week participating in the SNAP Challenge, eating by only using the amount of money that people on food stamps have. Kathy researched menu options and planned carefully to make sure that we could make it through the week on the allowed budget.  We also made trips into New York City to see the Book of Mormon, for the birth of Miles, to take Noah to the Museum of Natural History, and to see Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping.  Then, at the end of the year, once I’d finished my fall teaching classes and gone on vacation from the presbytery work, my daughter Becca took me for my birthday present- to get matching triqueta tattoos.  It’s a symbol that I love for a lot of reasons, so I’m glad to “carry it with me” from now on but I’m even happier to have it because of the connection it has with Becca.

All in all 2013 was a hard year because of the changes. I still think of myself as a parish pastor and miss so much of that life and work as well as the people connected with it and I so long to join or build some local, intentional community. But 2013 was also a year with lots of unexpected joy in it—listening to Kathy the beginning clarinetist as she practiced, getting to build connections with new people in a wider variety of settings than I’ve had in years, and having a chance to rethink my life and what matters in it.