Once Upon a Time I Sang

As a kid living in Nebraska for six of my life’s formative years, I met some refugees without fully understanding their stories or their situations. One of them was my piano teacher, Hans Baer, a refugee from Nazi Germany. He told as much of his story as he felt a 13 year old needed to hear, but in the past few years, through a really amazing series of events, I learned more. Through this blog, I was contacted by a German historian who was putting together a book of the stories of the Jewish musicians who fled Germany for Shanghai. I’d written about my piano teacher. The book was finished recently, MUSIKER UND MUSIKERINNEN IM SHANGHAIER EXIL 1938–1949 . The ultimate sweetness of THAT — for me — was that she attached her articles about my teacher and his wife. As I read them I was happy that I’d actually contributed a little something. He was a remarkable, unforgettable, inspiring man, and I was so lucky to have had him as a teacher, not only of piano but of life philosophy.

The other refugees I met during that time of my life came from Spain. Was one my 7th grade Spanish teacher, Dr. Espinosa, or Espinotha. The very school to which I rode the bus. 🙂 He was pretty adamant about that th sound. He organized our class one year to come to the Spanish/American Club in Omaha to sing Spanish Christmas songs.

Eight of us learned to sing some traditional Christmas carols in Spanish and a few South American songs. We had to dress up in grown up clothes. It was my first time in nylons. They felt creepy on my legs, like they were crawling around. It was pre-pantyhose and maybe I was wearing my mom’s girdle. We all went out in the very cold Nebraska December to sing to a group of old people from Spain. They were refugees from Franco’s regime about which I knew nothing.

Over the course of my teaching life I got to know refugees from all over the place and the stories carry one common thread — hope. My student from Somalia was walking across the campus with me one day and said, “Ah, my classmates. Everything bothers them. They just haven’t had to run away from bullets or watch their village burn.” He and his sister had fled their home, not knowing if their family would survive. Their mother had said, “Go!” and they ran. They did find their family and all of them refugeed to the US, but…

I’ve thought a lot about the role of hope in our lives. Hope is totally absurd. To take this absurdity forward into the dark and dangerous unknown, and sometimes with NOTHING else? “Well, what do I have to keep moving forward with? Shit. I got nothing. Necessity. Wait, I have this, too, this small and irrational thing, this tiny bird…

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Emily Dickinson

Hope keeps humans from sinking into the twin abysses of dread and loss. The irony of real hope — in contrast with “I hope Santa brings me a” or “I hope I get the winning lottery ticket” — is that when you need it, you probably don’t have anything else. I believe it’s an evolutionary strategy that kept our ancestors going forward when they had no reason to. “Tomorrow will be a better day.” Well, probably not, but it’s a lot easier to go to sleep if you think so. Hope fuels determination and will, powerful forces for change.

Back then, we sang this beautiful Chilean Christmas lullaby, “Arruru”. I don’t think we sounded like this. The melody is what we sang, but the words are a little different. I’ve pasted the “real” lyrics below.


Señora Doña María aquí le traigo a mi hijito
Señora Doña María aquí le traigo a mi hijito
Para que le meza la cuna cuando llora su niñito
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús

Bajando de las montanas allí vienen los pastores
Bajando de las montanas allí vienen los pastores
Para ver el nacimiento han sufrido los rigores
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús

Iluminado el camino la blanca estrella en Belén
Iluminado el camino la blanca estrella en Belén
Resplandece en el cielo sobre Jerusalén
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús

Loose translation: First verse; Here Mary brings her little son and lays him in a crib, she rocks the crib when he cries and sings, “Arruru, sleep little Jesus.” Second, The shepherds come down from the mountains. It’s a hard journey to see the birth. Third, Their way is lit by the white (bright) star over Bethlehem, lighting the sky over Jerusalem.

Hope in a Dog’s World

Lots of poetry has been written on the subject of hope and I’ve posted my two favorites here — “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy, and “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson. Hope is that conundrum; we can’t live happily without hope but most of our disappointment is the result of having had hope.

Dogs are the masters of hope. They hope FERVENTLY (as Teddy is hoping for the dregs in my coffee cup just like Dusty T. Dog used to).

“Are you going to give me that cup? Are you? Are you? I sure hope so…”

His hope is well-tempered by pragmatism. He knows how long it usually takes me to drink my coffee. He might even be able to tell the temperature of the emptying cup. Dogs have keen senses. He also has a lot of faith in me.

“Thanks Martha.”

As for me, I’m hoping for more snow. I have no pragmatic background knowledge other than it’s ONLY the end of the first part of January and there are at least two more months left to winter and the odds are in my favor (compared to the odds in July, for example). I can’t sit at the feet of the weather gods looking adorable and guilting them into dropping some snow. All I can do is wait, be grateful for what I have (what dog sits around counting its blessings? I’m not sure they don’t; I’m not sure they do), and figure out how to put together this little rack I got for my natural pigment paints that need to be stored upside down.

Meanwhile, Teddy and I have had our coffee, Bear her rawhide cigarettes and they’re onto the next thing which is going outside and patrolling the periphery.

I’m going to go try my new paints.


Ode to a Quixotic Pumpkin

“Give it up, Faith. It’s inevitable. You got a late start.”

“I can’t ‘give it up’. Seriously?”

“OK, but you’re breaking my heart.” I wanted to explain that our elevation is 7500 feet/2200 meters. That the growing season is barely 8 weeks and by starting out in July? But why? Why daunt an undaunted pumpkin? Besides, who knows?

I know not everyone talks to the Australian pumpkin growing in their garden or to pumpkins of any other nationality for that matter. I loved her Quixotic determination not that she really had a choice. Given good soil, the right amount of water and sunshine and a decent seed to begin with, a plant is going to grow. It’s not exactly an act of will.

And every single day Faith grew. For a long while she was a little plant, most occupied with establishing a durable root system. Then she was four feet long, and then six and then eight and then the bachelors began to appear and the drama, “Will she put out girls?”

She did! “Hand fertilize!” said a friend in Australia, familiar with Australian pumpkins. So, each morning (September!) I was out to see if the girl’s had opened and when they were? I helped twice with successful pumpkin sex. Faith kept making hot girls and handsome bachelors up even as recently as a week ago, but my thought was that she should focus on the two pumpkins who were most likely to make it to adulthood. Kind of pumpkin birth control, but there’s a metaphor there.

So Faith’s two little daughters grew and grew. Then…

Last week, a mild frost hit the upper leaves. Undaunted, Faith sent up new leaves to take their place, but Jack Frost’s handwriting was on the wall, so to speak. Two nights ago, a real frost hit, and yet…

I might have covered her if my foot hadn’t been so incredibly painful at that juncture, but I was not about to walk in the uneven dog-hole riddled ground that is my yard, besides, Faith is more than 20 feet/6 meters long.

Still, the roots have not yet frozen and yesterday Faith sent up a couple of yearning bachelors. One of the large girls succumbed to frosts but the other, in a more sheltered spot, is persevering. I don’t think Faith will give up until the roots freeze — which will be Thursday when temps are slated to hit 17 F/-8 C.

Nature is the boss of the possible, but Faith is the boss of dreams. Faith says, “Do it anyway,” which is, if you think about it, the only possible choice.


Back at the “Gym” — Flexibility

Kind of a big day for me. I returned to physical therapy this morning — the real deal — not just the guy coming to my house to make sure I’m moving around. As it happens, yesterday they moved into their own facility. They were sharing space in the local gym. Their new space is beautiful and includes a lot of new equipment, including a semi-recumbent bike a lot like the one in the picture above. I rode it today. I was so happy to “ride.” Since I cannot yet get safely on my Sainted Airdyne, I haven’t had anything approaching aerobic exercise since my surgery. I took my archaic iPod (“Online? What’s that?”) out of my pocket and listened to my anthem (Running Up that Hill) then to Bruce Springsteen singing about not surrendering. I could’ve kept riding godnose how long, but since it’s been a month, I thought I should be prudent.

Then my therapist, Ron — whom I like, respect and trust very much — put me on a table and tried to get me to “let go” of the operated leg, to relax it so it would fall over the edge. It was so difficult. I could feel all kinds of fear clinging to that joint. I’m lucky in that my body is VERY articulate in transmitting messages to my mind. It said very clearly, “I’m scared!!!!” I said to Ron, “There’s all kinds of stuff going on down there.” He nodded. He knew. “It’s scared,” Ron nodded again. I sent a message to my joint that said, “Let go. It’s OK.” It did, just like that, relaxed. The reward was a massage of my quads and the IT band.

Then we went out to the parallel bars and I basically “practiced” walking without walking, using all the muscles and working on balance. Then we went back to the table where I did muscle response exercises.

One of the wonders of this is that I stand up straight.

Before we started, Ron interviewed me about how the surgery had gone, how I was feeling, what worked and what didn’t and then he said, “What are your goals? What do you want to be able to do when we finish here?”

My eyes filled with tears and I said, “I’m going to cry.” I don’t know why that struck me so intensely. “OK, on July 15 the Rio Grande Wildlife Area opens again. I want to be able to walk 2 miles with my dogs. With this, that’s OK,” I lifted my cane.

“You should use that, definitely, everyone should on uneven ground,” he said. “We can do that. That’s completely possible. What do we have, six weeks? Plenty of time. Let’s get to it.”

And we did.