Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Posts Tagged ‘Thoughts

Birdsong in My Stride

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I was housesitting, and the homeowners had a collection of daily reflections sitting on the tank of the toilet. I flipped through and decided that I liked the collection well enough to get one for myself (Mark Nepo’s “The Book of Awakening”). I don’t always remember to look in the book, and when I do, I often find the comments and discussion to be sufficient and think no more about it. This time was different.

The koan was: Of all the things that exist, we breathe and wake, and turn it into song.

The discussion was about being born a human and to think about what gifts that brings. It would be nice to be a bird or a tree or even a rock. They can do marvelous things. Or maybe their lack of human thought would be a nice respite. But think, for a moment, what it means to be a human rather than something else—and think what it means to be YOU, specifically. There are things you can do, and DO do, every single day, that no other being can do.

It’s kind of like counting blessings. When you list all the positive things that happen in a day, you start feeling better about your day, every day. In a while, it becomes a habit, to see all the golden sunsets, the birds soaring on a thermal, the well-crafted quilt or pie or computer, the way the laundry smells when it’s fresh out of the dryer.

I have several friends who suffer from depression. This koan made me think of them—how special each was, how much I love them for their strength, their humor, their tolerance of me and all my peculiarities. Could someone else be or do all those things? I doubt it.

Think for a minute about the many great gifts that you have and that you give every day. I often reflect on one friend’s ability to be part of a family. In her case, it’s not an easy thing—that’s why it’s so remarkable. It’s not just that her husband is indifferent to her much of the time, or that she has disabled children, or that her live-in sister is often difficult to be around. It’s that she has the fortitude to stay in the relationships. She could have scarpered. She could have refused the sister’s presence in her home. She could have demanded a divorce and buckets of money. She could have institutionalized the kids. But she stayed. And because she stayed, those four other humans have a decent life. Can’t she see how amazing that is? I couldn’t have done half of that.

Another friend has married a very nice fellow. Oh, some of her family doesn’t understand because he’s so different from how they are. But he adores her. He grows all cow-eyed and mushy when she walks into the room. He thinks she can do no wrong and boasts, all shy and embarrassed, about her many skills, gifts, and beauties. I know her because we share a hobby. She’s always prepared, she always arrives on time, she never asks for anything special, and she always does her best, and her best is pretty darned good. Everyone who knows her can find many things to appreciate. Her hugs and her big soft eyes that look at you with wit and humor are the best things, of course, but I suppose she can’t see those. Even her job is about helping others. Yet she suffers with thinking that she’s not enough.

Still another friend has a wonderful and heroic husband, the kind we all think of as the prototype for Prince Charming. And he chose HER. He chose her because she’s lovely, witty, clever, kind, and patient. She can’t see any of that. Sometimes her cheerfulness seems a bit false or her unwillingness to talk about herself or her current projects reveals her depression, but most of the time, she gets away with her secret. She’s another person whose job is all about helping other people.

One more friend, probably the most intelligent human I have ever met, suffers with this same kind of overwhelming sadness. She’s beautiful, wonderfully well-educated, has a great job that interests her, great friends, many hobbies, and a very quick wit. She’s the first to point out the beauty in something, the symmetry or similarity to some other thing (often pop- or movie-culture), and she makes you laugh so hard that the orange juice you drank yesterday comes out your nose. I admire her more than nearly everyone I’ve ever met (my parents and some of their friends are the only ones who can top her). And she thinks she’s nothing most of the time. She thinks that no one sees her because there have been a few blind fools crossing her path.

All of these women exhibit extreme cleverness, marvelous outside-of-the-box artsy-fartsy-ness. They make and maintain friendships, even with people like me, who tend to withdraw for no good reason (other than being introverted).

I’m not a sad person. I think I understand what my friends go through, but my times of sadness have been caused by something specific (like my mother’s death, or the end of a romance, job, or friendship), and in time, the darkness lifted or changed. I have a tendency to look for and find the silver linings in things. When I can’t find one, I feel desperate and keep looking until I do.

Thinking about this contrast makes me return to the koan. Is it uniquely human to suffer depression or to be permanently—or determinedly—happy?

On my walk this morning, I watched myself put one foot in front of the other. Do I choose to walk like this, the same pattern over and over? Why not put a foot to the side? Why not behind? What is it about that forward motion that’s so mesmerizing? I took a step to the side. I walked with my feet wide apart. I took some steps backward. I turned sideways and walked by crossing my feet grapevine-wise. (This is San Francisco. It wasn’t even REMOTELY a weird thing to do here. No one noticed.)

I thought about the uniquely human act of going for a walk that has nothing to do with getting food or shelter. My walks feel like they have purpose because they’re about health and meditation and writing scenes in my head, but what other animal sets aside an hour of every day for such self-indulgence?

Today, when I reached the bay, I came upon a goose couple with three little goslings, I stopped to watch. They were going for a walk too. They walked to the other side of the path and onto the berm. Then they turned around and walked back, just as I do every day. I walk to the ballpark, walk around the ballpark, walk back home up the hill. What I saw was just like that, those little goslings and their parents putting one foot in front of the other, coming to the turn-around, and heading home, one foot in front of the other.

I walked on and was about to warn a woman walking toward me to give the geese a wide berth (they can be aggressive, especially with the little ones around) when she cried out—”oh! The little ones! And I just saw a seal and her baby! What a beautiful day!”

Her joy made me think about that little koan again. Humans share those little happy moments, even with strangers. We share little triumphs, even little annoyances. Even when the news is bad, it makes my day a bit brighter to know that my friends or a stranger has shared in this uniquely human way, and that I can be counted on for sympathy, advice, indignation, or happiness, as appropriate. We are most human in our responses to the things life brings our way.

Today, I honor the uniquely human part of us all, and I especially honor those people who suffer from depression, especially the ones who suffer who haven’t yet told their friends. Tell them. Tell us. We will love you because that is what humans do in times of trouble. It’s also what we do in the happy times. We might not understand, but we will listen.

Of all the things that exist, we breathe and wake, and turn it into song.

Written by Melanie Spiller

May 2, 2016 at 12:55 pm

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Thoughts on the Olympics

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Every four years, my family and I are frustrated at Olympic coverage. Oh, I don’t just mean the usual US-centric complaint, or the banal announcer comments, or even that all they seem to show is swimming, gymnastics, and a few team sports. It’s that they don’t cover some of our family favorites.

I don’t miss boxing, the focus of a lot of coverage in my childhood. I wouldn’t know what I was seeing with judo, wrestling, or dressage. It’s that the one sport that interests us as a family, sailing, either isn’t covered at all (as in previous years) or has really dreadful unedited, hidden in the deep-dark-recesses-of-the-NBC-website coverage, like this year.

I watched about an hour of the online sailing coverage the other day on the website. There was no narration at all, and the onshore announcer wasn’t recorded. We could hear the lovely susurration of the water against the boats and the creaking of lines, and even the occasional shout from a sailor. But as far as announcing who had to round the mark a second time, who was disqualified and why, those were muffled comments picked up so poorly from the at-sea cameras that they couldn’t be understood.

They did have cameras onshore, though, just not near the announcer. They panned across the people in the crowd (not an insignificant crowd, either), and we could hear those conversations quite clearly. They just didn’t bother to set the cameras up for onshore announcer sound. I checked several of the recordings (there were dozens of them, thank you!), but none had better sound. I didn’t see the medal race—perhaps they had sound there?—because they wanted my email address and login information, and I didn’t want to get on their mailing list. I only wanted to watch the sailing. Fortunately, I could get to the final results without signing in (and what a surprise the medalists were!), so I know how it all worked out. But it was frustrating not to be able to watch the best of the best. Even if no Americans were in the particular medal race that I wanted to watch.

As an entertainment, I wrote my own narration to about an hour of the tape, pointing out the time stamp for significant events, in case I wanted to review them again. It was a lot of fun, really, and to me, made the point very clearly that sailing is quite exciting to watch. It’s more exciting to be on the boat, of course, but watching is a lot of fun too.

Then a friend commented on Facebook that he didn’t think rhythmic gymnastics seemed like a sport, that it seemed more like Cirque du Soleil. Hmm. It IS a lot like Cirque. Does that make it not a sport? It takes a lot of years of plain ordinary gymnastics and dance and THEN working with a prop, which means hand/eye coordination, to be any good at it. Yes, it is dancelike and entertaining on more levels than simply outrunning someone might be. But does that make it not a sport?

I started thinking of other sports where there seems to be even less athletic prowess, in my uneducated opinion. Like shooting.

Shooting an arrow from a bow is probably pretty hard. Shooting a gun might even be hard. But basically, both bow and gun shooting are about maneuvering a prop, about eye/hand coordination. Dressage looks like the hard part is controlling the animal, which could be loosely interpreted as a prop too. But the success of dressage performance depends entirely on the athleticism (and mood) of the animal, not the rider. Do people doubt that these things are sports? I mean, basically, someone stands or sits and points their prop, and hopes that they do it more accurately than anyone else. Now, I’m not doubting that there is some considerable skill involved, but are these things sports?

Throwing something, or lifting something really heavy, those are sports, right? Once again, it seems like manipulation of props, but to me, these things involve more than good eye/hand coordination. They also involve some sort of honing and refining of physical strength. There aren’t quite as many tricks to the shot put as doing a double back flip with a twist while catching a 5-inch ball on the sole of your foot in time with music, but, still.

Today, I was watching the long-distance swimming that was considered exciting enough to be shown on network TV. I have to say, after a half hour of coverage, it didn’t seem like as much happened as had happened in ten minutes of the sailing once the races began. In fact, it seemed like less. All that showed of the swimmers were their swimming caps and some splash. There was some jockeying for position, but basically, the same person who’d led the pack won. I did find the bow-wave-like ripples in the water that spread from the pack of swimmers to be quite beautiful. And there were panning shots of the audience. It looked like not quite as many people showed up for that as for the sailing. The viewing area wasn’t as deep, so I can’t be sure.

So maybe there is something more relatable about the swimming? No, that can’t be it. I’m pretty sure none of us can truly imagine that we are beating Bolt in the 200M dash, out-butterflying Phelps, or holding ourselves effortlessly in the Iron Cross position on the still rings.

Like shooting, sailing is about maneuvering a prop in terms of prevailing wind (and water) conditions. But it has the added excitement of being a race, the people in the boats have a lot of strength in their cores, limbs, and fingers, they have the stamina to sustain the effort for at least an hour and possibly all day, day after day, and they need tactical intelligence both against other sailors and against the wind and water.

So why does sailing get less attention than long distance swimming? Go on and see for yourself. Look it up on the NBC site. You’ll see. After the usual dithering around before the race begins (ten minutes or so), it’s pretty darned exciting.

Written by Melanie Spiller

August 10, 2012 at 7:19 pm

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Virtue and Vegetables

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At meditation the other night, someone said something about vegetarianism being more virtuous than being omnivorous. I don’t know about that—and I’m a vegetarian.

Two things came up for me: Being a vegetarian amounts to being a picky eater and virtues are not generally lifestyle choices.

First, the human body is designed to be omnivorous. Tooth and stomach design, not to mention inclination, are evidence of this. Humans don’t have the ripping teeth or beaks of a predator, but they do have the grinding teeth like other meat eaters and that vegetarian animals are conspicuously missing. The enzymes—and the sheer length—of the digestive organs are specifically meant to break meat down and distribute its various nutritious elements throughout the body. But even more than that, no amount of coaxing will make a giraffe eat meat. Meat simply does not smell or look like food to them. Humans, for the most part, do like the taste, sight, and smell of meat. That some of us don’t is parallel to having a favorite color or preferring the countryside to the beach.

There are many reasons for being a vegetarian. Some choose this path because they object to the way the animals are treated during their short lives. Some choose it because they don’t like the idea of eating something that could look back at them. Some have religious reasons—whether or not they agree, their religious beliefs or cultures proscribe eating either all animals or certain animals. And some choose not to eat meat for health reasons—in some cases, the body simply has to work too hard to digest meat, leaving them vulnerable to disease, and in others, there are allergies, sensitivities, and digestive complaints that are solved with this simple change.

I’m in that last group. I stopped eating red meat when I was a teenager (mostly because I didn’t like it much, and partially because I was a bit of a hippie and the diet fit into that) and almost immediately I stopped getting colds and flu. More recently, my liver has decided that fat is not my friend, and it’s way easier to eat a controlled-fat diet without animal products of any kind.

Gosh, and I feel better too. Again.

Now that I’m a vegan, I find that it’s hard to keep my protein levels up. When I was a teen, it didn’t matter much, but now, I pay for those sorts of imbalances. I’m probably also paying for the imbalances of my youthful ignorance about balanced nutrition. So I count protein intake much as others count calories. I have all kinds of supplements and processed foods that give my protein count a boost when I simply cannot eat another bite of tofu, nuts, or beans. There is a significant improvement in how I feel when my protein count is above 40 grams a day, so I’m pretty committed to counting protein grams. (Protein requirements are determined by body weight, so your requirement could be higher or lower than mine.)

But none of this feels particularly virtuous. Oh, it’s true that I make most of my own food—that’s one truly beneficial side-effect of this choice. I have more control over the fuel I supply myself with than omnivores with a typical American-style diet. But there’s not much that can be counted as virtuous in a typical American-style diet. It’s full of processed foods, has a horrible imbalance of meat and dairy products, and seems to eschew carbohydrates as evil rather than as a good source of energy.

But is avoiding an American-style diet  enough to make vegetarianism into a virtue?

It seems to me that a virtue is more like a personality trait or a natural inclination than a choice. I mean, a person can choose to be kind, gracious, merciful, charitable, or wise, but really, these things come more naturally to some than to others. There is the instinct to make a sarcastic remark just as there is the instinct to hug someone who weeps. Not having the sarcastic impulse is a virtue, as is the impulse to comfort someone. Squelching the one and acting on the other impulse might be considered virtuous too.

Does being virtuous mean denying natural urges? Like not punching the cretin who cut you off for the third time while on the freeway today or jumping into bed with that hunky construction worker or spending beyond the budget? Does it mean keeping the house clean, volunteering to charitable organizations, calling parents regularly, and respecting other people?

My first encounter with a raw-food vegan (not only do they eat no animal products, but nothing can be heated over 110 degrees Fahrenheit either), led me to think that this diet was an enormous inconvenience. Eating in an ordinary restaurant was a problem, making a meal without a lot of warning was a problem, and frankly, he was constantly eating something, which was a lot like being friends with a caterpillar. He thought of his diet as “taking the high road.” I didn’t see it that way at the time, and I still don’t see it, nearly a decade later. Besides.  I like less of my day to be devoted to fueling myself and more of the fuel to be about pleasure than function.

But that’s just my choice.

I talked to a vegetarian friend about this issue, and she said that she doesn’t tell dinner hosts that she’s a vegetarian. If she is served chicken, for instance, she just eats it. She said that she doesn’t seem to suffer for it (physically or psychically) unless she’s eaten more animal flesh in a short period of time than usual (like three times in a week). But she’s not a vegan, and her diet is about ethics, not health. Inconveniencing a host is less ethical to her than eating the meat, so she just goes along with the crowd.

In her case, eating meat is more virtuous in certain circumstances than not eating it. On her own, she doesn’t eat meat, though, and I haven’t noticed her being uncomfortable staying vegetarian around non-vegetarians or judging when other vegetarians step off the narrow path.

It seems like people who are NOT vegetarians are the ones who think of being a vegetarian as virtuous. Is it that we’ve now labeled any sort of abstinence as virtuous? Does that make subsistence farmers more virtuous than those of us who work in an office because they procure their food from their own sweat equity rather than from the corner market?

I guess I don’t think of my dietary habits as virtuous in a general way. I think of some of the details as virtuous, such as counting protein intake or baking my own bread, but in general, it’s just a choice, like wearing certain clothes or living in a particular place. But if you want to think of my diet as virtuous, I can live with that.

I can also live with it if you think I’m just being picky.

Written by Melanie Spiller

September 7, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Food, Thoughts

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Role Models

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Another rock star is dead before the age of 30. On Facebook, in among the expressions of sadness, people are ranting about what a bad role model the dearly departed was. Does everyone in the public eye have to be a role model? Really?

I started thinking about other public figures and whether or not they were always considered role models. Politicians? Check. Writers? Check. Millionaires/billionaires? Check and check. Opera singers? Check. Actors? Check. What about on a smaller scale, like teachers? Check. Religious leaders? Check. Business owners? Check.

Other than teachers, it seems like all these folks have a reputation for running amok. What’s the deal? Is there something about being in the public eye that attracts people who are damaged? Or is it that being in the public eye causes such damage that the psyche breaks down and indulgence takes over?

I started thinking about the nature of over-indulgence and self-indulgence. It seems like the line of work influences that too. Rock stars overdo with substance abuse. Opera singers with food. Actors with ornamentation like jewelry, clothing, houses, and cars. Politicians seem to indulge in many directions, often including the thing they most vigorously campaign against. Religious leaders seem to fall off the straight-and-narrow when it comes to making predictions or caring for young people. Business owners get obsessed with the bottom line and step over the ethical line.

What’s the deal? As a musician and a writer myself, I thought for a while about the people with whom I do these things. Do we over-indulge too? Hmm. Not that I know of. Is that why none of us are famous?

Now wait a minute. Do you have to be famous to be a role model? My parents were my role models, and some teachers. I can’t think of a single famous person that I considered a role model when I was young. Oh, there were people that I idolized—the Beatles, Amelia Earhart, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Isadora Duncan, Louisa May Alcott. But did I want to grow up to be just like them? Not really. Did they inspire me to do my best in some things? Absolutely.

So what is it about today’s youth that needs to emulate famous people? Has it always been true? Did I want to be Bach when I grew up? Or Agatha Christie? Do they make it look easy enough that the rest of us think that we can do it too?

Are we, in the end, drawn toward role models whose virtues—and failings—we want to emulate? Did I become a classically trained musician because I want to feel a little out of touch with my own times? Did I choose writing, technology, and music because people with the same inclination toward introversion, introspection, and celebration are also involved?

Do I still have role models? Well, yes, I suppose I do: My parents, certain teachers, several of my parent’s friends. Oh, and there are those individuals who teach me about kindness and humor and grace in the tiny little lessons of living their lives in light of those things. These are my role models now, and frankly, the list looks much the same as it would have when I was thirteen even though many of the names have changed.

There are still the Theodore Bikel characters, the Pete Seegers, those standing up for truth and against injustice, and those committed to their craft, whatever that might be, and who follow their destinies even if that doesn’t make them rich, famous, or even popular. These perfectly ordinary people are my role models now, and apparently, have always been my role models.

Perhaps there is no famous person with whom I would trade places—isn’t that what a role model is? No, I would rather achieve my own fame and notoriety under the steam of my own efforts and skills. It’s not that I don’t want to be rich and famous, of course. It’s that I want to be expert at my own craft and be recognized for it. I don’t have a problem with working hard to achieve whatever it is that I’m going to achieve, either. If it were easy, I probably wouldn’t value it as much.

So, do people who, say, choose rock and roll, do they choose it because it represents a lifestyle that they want for themselves? And is that the same for all rockers?  Is it loud guitars, driving bass, crashing drums, and mind-altering amounts of drugs and alcohol? And those who choose writing, is it because they like being alone, being moody, and experiencing a lot of rejection? What about opera singers makes them so obsessed with the pleasures of the senses?

Is this a chicken and egg question? I don’t know.

This week, another famous person is dead from self-indulgence (presumably) and people are decrying the poor thing as a bad role model. Isn’t it really the obligation of the individual to choose role models who inspire us to do our best and not our worst? And when we choose a role model who proves to have a tragic weakness, is it their fault that they fail us? Or is it our own bad choice that is at fault?

Is it our wanting them to be perfect that drives them to the point where they are completely consumed by their own imperfection? Shouldn’t we pick role models without such obvious defects? Or do we choose them because they succeed despite their failings? Do their failings become huge and inescapable because we expect impossible perfection from them? Or is it their imperfections that allow them to become the role model in the first place? Did someone who knew that the individual had issues choose them as a role model expecting that somehow, the result would be different this time?

I don’t know what the answers are, but I wish we wouldn’t berate the dead for having not lived up to some indefinable standard. Let’s choose role models based on the whole person and not the surface of them. I think that means that we mustn’t idolize people we don’t actually know without reading about them in the tabloids. And it means that if they are only public figures but not otherwise living their lives in a way we would emulate, let’s admire their gifts but not call them role models. Let’s let the poor things own their own lives without being responsible for ours by implication.

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 27, 2011 at 12:53 pm

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Worlds Merging

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Last night my Jewish choir joined forces with my Gregorian chant choir. I’d set it up with the same anxiety that prospective brides have about the two families meeting for the first time. But I needn’t have worried. It was as if we’d all known each other forever.

I’m so proud of all of them—all of us—I feel like I could float.

The Gregorian chant group has existed for about a dozen years, and I’ve been part of it for most of those. We sing from the block note neumes (see my post on the History of Music Notation, if you’d like more about that), and meet every single Monday night except for December, and sing at a proper Gregorian mass on the fourth Saturday of every month except December. Some in the group do not read modern notation and others are accomplished musicians from a lot of eras and instruments.

The thing about the group that is most striking is not musical ability or the music we do. It’s the uniformly sweet temperament. Oh, sometimes we get a bug up our noses about whether there should be a breath here or not, and whether this could be sung with that emphasis or another, but it’s always about the music and never about the person whose opinion we’re ignoring. Some of the sweetness could be that I’m the youngest person in the group by at least a decade and the older we get, the more inclined we are to be sweet, or it could just be that no one is fighting for prominence because we’re all made better by every other person who shows up and we know it.

And some of the people who’ve been in the group but aren’t anymore, some of them are the most special people on the planet too. (And we miss them regularly.) We’ve had a transfer teacher from Poland, a music major from U.C. Berkeley, a math doctoral student, professional translators, editors, peace activists, school teachers, engineers, and cancer survivors. (Rather more of our share of cancer survivors than is comfortable, but I suppose that’s better than the other way around.) We’ve had marriages and babies from among our number, and cried on each others’ shoulders about relationships and politics (a lot about politics) and natural disasters, jobs, health, and just plain being in a bad mood. We’ve had former and current monks and nuns, we’ve had Buddhists, Episcopalians, Jews, and Quakers—oh and a few Catholics, while we’re at it—we’ve had people who wanted to chant as a form of worship and people who wanted to chant as a musical expression and people who just wanted something interesting to do on a Monday night.

Yes, some of the best people in the world have sung with that little group over the years. And I, for one, am made better for it.

Now, the Jewish group, they’re new. This is their third year (I think—it might only be their second). They sing music from all eras, the only rule being that it’s either by a Jewish composer or expresses Jewish sentiments. Again, I was astonished to find the nicest people on the planet in their rehearsals. Like the chant group, it’s a diverse crowd in skills, age, and faith. I knew a few of the members before I showed up for the first time, so I felt quite welcome from the start. But others have joined since, and I can see that that is just their way—they are a very nice bunch of people.

The thing that struck me from the beginning was how alike the two groups are—in skill, in musical focus, in temperament. So it was natural that when the Jewish group took the summer off, I invited them to sing with the chant group (they rehearse on the same night and I’ve had to alternate which group I rehearse with). Things went swimmingly, with people saying whether they could or couldn’t come, and if they were interested in hearing the chanted mass rather than singing it. And I didn’t have any doubts at all until I was driving to the rehearsal.

Then I had a moment—what if this is the night one of us is having a bad day? What if it’s harder to sing from the neumes than I made it out to be? What if we get locked out of the hall for some reason, and have to stand on the sidewalk until someone can find the priest to let us in? What if no one shows up after I talked it up so large????

But then, people started to arrive. People who’d never met each other before hugged. There were smiles and laughter. And when we went in to sing, there was focus and fun and a lot of good music. The Jewish group sang as if they’d been reading the neumes all along and the chant group was helpful and welcoming and—all those things I went on and on about in the earlier paragraphs.

I’ve made a lot of music in my lifetime. It’s one of my favorite activities. But that rehearsal made the best music ever: the music of love and friendship and a common purpose.

Maybe I am actually floating.

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Music, Thoughts

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Taking the Train

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Last week at meditation, the koan was about a student going to the master and plaintively asking to be shown the light. The master responds that the light is nothing but the reaching for it is of value.

What struck me about this was not the obvious—that it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey. For me, it was about fighting the urge within myself to resist change that I do not originate.

First, the destination versus journey words came up for me and then I got an image, the metaphor of a train. I am traditionally the engine, pulling things where I want them to go, riding high near the light, large and in charge. But the truth is, some of the best journeys I’ve had in my life were from the caboose, content to see what comes as it comes, not to control or direct.

I thought about this for a while, seeing how the metaphor fit into various aspects of my life present and past. Yes, as an introvert, I have a tendency to be the engine and not notice or know whether there are other cars on the train. But what I love about travel is exactly the caboose metaphor. I might have a plan and know how I’m getting there, but I love to let things unfold and just see where the train goes and where that trip takes me. I love to flip a coin to decide my path when I’m on vacation.

Why do I have such a separation between my “normal” life and my traveling self? How can I put that willingness to go with the flow into my daily life?

Hmmm. There is change afoot nearly everywhere I look. Some of it excites me, some frightens me, and some I seem to be ignoring. If I think about the exciting changes, they have to do with the season (figs are in the stores again—did you hear me? Figs!) and with some creative endeavors. If I think about the frightening ones, they are mostly creative and somewhat financial, which I suppose ends up being creative, and they are also somewhat physical, with some concerns about health, mine and others that I care about. And the changes that I ignore? They are too numerous to count and I suppose mostly in the category of the mundane (such as the dust accumulating on things), some more things to do with the seasons, and a kind of relaxing of musical effort as the season comes to a close.

So creative things are both exciting and scary. What does that mean? And what if I think that nearly everything I do is creative? That would seem to mean that I find creative efforts exciting, scary, and mundane. Hmm.

So where does that leave me on the train? Can I make my way to the caboose? Is it possible to instigate creative things and then let them run amok without taking charge of them? Just let them go wherever they go and not try to take charge?

Perhaps the expression shouldn’t be “taking” the train, because that implies control of it. Perhaps it should be “riding” the train.

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Posted in Thoughts

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Broken Glass

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About a month or so ago, my dear friend Mindy came over for dinner. I served the meal in some heavy ceramic bowls that she admired and she asked where I’d gotten them. When I told her that I’d had them for many years, she said “the glass is already broken.”

I was mystified. She explained that in her household, dishes and such tended to break because so many people came trooping through, so she was always on patrol for replacements. She went on to talk about the Buddhist koan “the glass is already broken.” She and I agreed that it seemed to mean that no matter how much sentiment, nostalgia, or monetary value we attribute to things, one day, they will break or otherwise no longer be ours. In the spirit of Buddhist non-ownership and impermanence, it is wise to think of the glass/bowl/cup as already broken.

I did a little thinking about it in the next few days (Mindy is very wise, and she is always saying things that make me think for a few days), and then I forgot about it.

Then, I went to this little meditation group that meets in my neighborhood, and the evening’s koan was “the glass is already broken.” I’d already gone down this path a little ways, so I was delighted to meet my old friend in this way.

Again, I let it resonate for a day or two (I ate out of one of those bowls, too), and then it slipped out of my head.

Last Monday, I sat next to a stranger on a plane. We talked about our jobs, traveling, being vegetarians, his wife’s religious belief in the Great Spaghetti Monster, and had a nice little conversation. And then, out of the blue, he said “the glass is already broken.”

The plane could have dropped out of the sky in that moment and I wouldn’t have noticed.

I had thought that the koan was about the intemperance of things, about falsely associating things with meaning. I had thought that I’d understood what it was supposed to teach me.

Apparently not.

In the last week or four, I’ve been feeling general dissatisfaction about some social commitments, some musical endeavors, and about my job. Oh, none of it was new dissatisfaction; it just seemed all to be boiling unpleasantly at the same moment. And in truth, none of those things are incredibly unsatisfying. They’re just going through a cycle of unpleasantness on their ways to being pleasant again.

But this expression, the koan “the glass is already broken” coming out of this unexpected mouth, made me realize that I’d been thinking in terms of physical things themselves, and not really about my own attitude toward them. For me, now anyway, this koan is about false expectations.

I expect to always enjoy my musical endeavors, my social engagements, and because it has been true in the past, I even expect to enjoy my job. But really, life is about change, not about stasis. We grow up, we grow old, pets, people, and plants die, people move away, move up, move on. There is no way to stop any of that, and there’s really no excuse for wanting to stop it.

My job, my social commitments, my musical endeavors—all of these add color to my life. It’s really not reasonable of me to expect them to add meaning. Sometimes they do, and for those times, I am grateful. When they don’t, though, there’s no sense griping about it. Change seems to be the only permanent thing, after all.

Someday, whether I own them or not, those bowls will break.

Written by Melanie Spiller

May 8, 2011 at 8:07 am

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Tough Times

It seems like times are terrible these days. I mean, people seem so mean-spirited, so unkind, so thoughtless. When I think about the political environment in the US these days, I feel sad—we (as a culture) are putting the needs of the country, the state, the business, over the needs of individuals. Doesn’t that define communism? Aren’t we, as a country, supposed to be against that?

Did you hear all the folderol about who didn’t pay taxes? Big corporations made the list. People on unemployment, they had to pay, moms and pops, retired people, people who are struggling to pay the lighting bills, sick people who can’t get health insurance. For that matter, look at the health insurance debate. Look at all the redefining of abortion, marriage, which drugs should be legal, how animals should be kept before slaughter, all of that. Everything is about the majority not just controlling things but denying those same privileges, securities, and comforts to others only because they differ or can’t fight for themselves.

It all gives me the blues. So I turned on the radio, thinking I’d get to hear some nice socially interesting piece on NPR, but instead, I got the ramifications of Chernobyl, the tsunami, tornados, earthquakes, flooding, everything but pestilence. No wait. The bees are dying, sharks have been overhunted, and they are finding evidence of DDT in the fetuses of pregnant women who weren’t even born when DDT was still being used. Hmm.

I was feeling bleak about the state of the world, barely recovering from an unpleasant experience with a choral group where people seem to enjoy being unkind to one another and I went to a social event. There I learned that a woman who I find particularly unkind (the first time I met her, she told me how much she hated all the stupid people she worked with and how she was looking forward to firing one of them), told me that she was getting a degree in psychology in order to heal the world of “assholeness.” Hmm.

At work, it was revealed that the whole company was getting a significant raise, except my group because, after all, as the Big Shot explained, the market valued the roles of those people getting the raises. Hmm. The “market” does. Yes, that’s what it feels like: the “market” not valuing me or my coworkers.

So I drove home trying to repeat to myself that the only thing I truly have control over is my attitude. I tried to concentrate “lovingkindness,” as they say, on the world, on the people in my life, on the people who control my world in the smaller sense and in the larger, on the earth, as it struggles to recover from disaster after disaster and all the torments we inflict upon it and ourselves.

I tried to think about the people I love, the people who make me a better person than I am otherwise inclined to be, the people who ask me be part of their lives, despite all my negative personality traits. I tried to think of the things that went well today, the short trip to the grocery store, the recipe that turned out well, the moment of insight on a complex project at work, the lack of traffic on my way to that social event, the thoughtful gift from a friend who went on a trip I’d planned to go on but couldn’t.

I thought about the friend I hadn’t talked to in a few months, who called out of nowhere last weekend for no particular reason, and we ended up talking about things that were deeply important to both of us, a sort of accidental parity. What a gift, unexpected, rare, and without strings or boundaries.

I thought about another friend, the epitome of kindness, with whom I’d had a strange synchronicity of reconnection with old friends last week. I thought again, for the gazillionth time, of her kindness and attentiveness when I was so ill last year, of her patience through all my whining about it. How thinking about her makes me wish I could express my joy at knowing her in some way that would make it a more joyous experience to know ME. I wished that I had a tail to wag or something that would send a clear signal.

I thought about the softness of the ears of the lovely dogs I’d petted tonight, of the sunshine glistening on the drying puddle this morning, of the bird singing so enthusiastically along my path. I thought about how unreasonably long daffodils were staying in season this year, my favorite flower. I thought about how that woman who wants to become a psychotherapist really appreciates a good pun and all but barks with laughter, which made me think of my mother, the queen of Shaggy Dog stories. And that made me think of a fellow I work with (sort of), who is the perpetrator of many a dreadful Shaggy Dog story, and who wants to read my novel as a critical reader and wants my advice on his own, an unexpected symmetry.

I thought about my father defining intelligence to me on the telephone this week and how a few years ago, he would have defined it so differently, less kindly. And I thought about how open he has become, how much more like my mother now that she is not here to be herself anymore.

Yes, there are nice people in the world, there are beautiful things in nature, and I’m sure if I look hard enough, I can find something about politics or government that is going well.

It’s possible to find peace in a world that isn’t always very nice. Usually I find it in the smaller things, the silences, the “somebody let me change lanes” kindnesses, the familiar greeting of a grocery clerk, the welcoming handshake of a stranger. And some days, like today, I have to enumerate these things, counting blessings, if you like, to get myself out of the doldrums.

Written by Melanie Spiller

April 27, 2011 at 12:56 pm

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Reviving or Resuscitating

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It has been a long time—nearly three years—since I blogged. You may have followed me here when I had a regular spot with the nice folks at Office Zealot. I took a break, a hiatus, you might say, while my day job interfered somewhat, because they asked me to write on pretty much the same subject.

I finished that project, and now I feel free to write about writing again. Meanwhile, in my spare time, I have finished a first draft of my Hildegard von Bingen pilgrimage (non-fiction) and 18 chapters of a 20-chapter work of fiction about Hildegard. So this year, 2011, is going to be about finishing the latter and beginning the revision process on both. I hope to start looking for a publisher as well.

This blog will be different from the last. The last one was solely devoted to writing about writing. This one will do that, but will be more personal, as well. I plan to talk about my musical endeavors, my travels, my plans for the next work of fiction, and anything else that strikes my fancy. There will be some major themes.

I want to welcome you back and thank you for your patience, and I want to encourage you to visit the OZ site or my Web page,, for all those old articles about writing. They are mostly about technical writing—or for technical writers, I should say—but there are a few about fiction, political satire, travelogues, and advertising copy.

As always, I look forward to hearing from you, too.

Keep on Writing!

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 9, 2011 at 10:42 am

Posted in Thoughts, Uncategorized

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