Breath in Our Lungs

It’s easier for me to see God in retrospect. Maybe I’m too full of myself in the present moment. Or maybe the present is too ordinary, or too painful, and I’m too blinded to see Beauty. But whether I realize it or not, every moment is holy, infused with Life itself. Even Vivi’s wobbly steps, to the last gasps of the dying, are fueled by the God “who made the world and all things in it… He Himself gives to all people life and breath.”* This is the song all around me but I don’t always hear it. Today I’m singing along.

It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only**

My sister shows me a picture of her friend’s newborn baby, her perfect face framed by swaddling blankets. Looking at the photo, I wouldn’t know she has skeletal dysplasia, that her lungs will never develop, and that as soon as she was born her parents wondered when she might die. After preparing themselves for the possibility of a stillbirth, or perhaps meeting their daughter for only a few minutes, they are thankful for 30 hours with her. For thirty hours of a beating heart. Thirty hours of inhales. Thirty precious hours of exhales.

It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only

The gravel road winds through poplar groves, swamp, then spruce trees, and finally an open vista of the valley. Goldenrod decorates the ditches flanked by swaths of canola. I am running alone, waiting for my family to catch me on their bikes, when I turn around and see the bear. It’s big, black, and looks smooth to touch. It’s also about 200 meters away which makes it all the more beautiful. Seconds later a cub bounds after the mama. I wait to be sure I won’t miss another cub and to confirm they aren’t moving in my direction. Soon the rest of my clan catches up and passes me. Grandma and Grandpa lead the pilgrimage down the mountain. Cousins switch bikes. Uncles add stragglers to their loads. After ten miles we wheel, and limp, into Tim and Kristalyn’s driveway. Alive. Sore, but alive.

It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only

I’m loading the dishwasher and sweating. Stan is pounding up and down the stairs to his tool room; he is a man on a mission. But it’s the wrong one. According to me, he should finish installing a screen door so I can get some cross-breeze in this place. Instead, he’s building a bee hive.

“Would you be alright if I duct-taped some screen up?” I ask. Stan can tell I’m not just trying to be creative and answers as if I’d been nagging him all morning. Which, in my mind, I had been.

“Well what do you want me to do, Woman? Put up a screen door or capture you some feral bees?”

My sweat glands scream Are you kidding? while I say,Capture feral bees of course,” knowing Stan sees right through me.

A few days later he brings home a souvenir from his mission: a piece of honeycomb. We offer dessert to anyone who stops by, which means dipping fingers into the honey puddle or chewing on a piece of comb and letting sweetness gush into your mouth. Parts of the comb are capped brood which we get to see hatch in our kitchen. Stan studies the perfect hexagonal artwork in between google searches on bees and wild hives.

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It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only

Last week Vivian learned two important survival skills: walking and killing mosquitoes. I’m not sure which is more helpful or more entertaining to watch. When she comes back from toddling outside she re-enacts what happens by slapping her head and making serious guttural sounds. She will tell dramatic stories about the winged predators on demand. You just have to crouch down to eye-level and whisper the trigger: mosquitoes.

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It’s your breath in our lungs

My sister Tara and her kids visit us. We bake, swim, cook, clean, yell at our kids, cook, clean, walk, read to our kids, supervise sales of all kinds (garlic, baking, and ice cream to name a few), bike, hike, and cook and clean some more. Occasionally we manage coherent conversation. One night, after all the kids are asleep I’m reminded she has a life of her own I ask her questions about her friends, church, and future plans. I wonder why we are only getting to this now, when they’ve been here for two weeks already, and then I remember. The children. Mainly the two smallest shysters who take turns loving and hating each other. Eli alternates between offering her his soother and charging at her; Vivian screams and pinches then ducks in towards his neck while he hugs her. They are learning about the push and pull of relationship.

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It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only

The cancer has grown back. It’s in his esophagus, bones, lymph nodes and spread to his lungs and liver. This is not fair. Not how the game is supposed to go. It makes scared and sad just to write it.

Still. It’s your breath in our lungs…

We’re listening to Joni Mitchell and the girls are trying to sing along but it sounds terrible. I’m drafting this post with one hand and eating hot nachos with the other. I look up from my paper and say, “I don’t care what happens tonight except that you have to get your butts in bed by 8:00.” I’m determined to stick to my guns on this one. That is, until Stan gets his guitar out and starts figuring out a Civil Wars song. Susanna slides her fingers up and down her violin until she lands on the harmony. Her eyes get big when she surprises herself with the right notes. A nervous smile turns into a wince when the chords turn sour. We press play on the youtube video over and over again, straining to hear all the notes and who sings what. Belén sings along, even when we want her to stop. We shush her; gesture wildly at the screen; and glare. Nothing works. Her voice floats on top of the recorded music. We shoot more dirty looks her way. She cups her hands around her mouth and resorts to humming. She can’t stop singing.

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…And we pour out our praise to You only

It’s your breath in our lungs. It’s in every creative impulse, song we sing, and story we tell. It’s in every ordinary conversation, and every milestone reached. It’s the trace of you in every bee, bear and bone in our body. In every mother’s desperate cry, and even every cancerous cell. It’s your sustaining power. It’s your breath in our lungs, and we pour out our praise, pour out our praise to You only.

*Read Acts 17:22-30

**Listen to All Sons and Daughters sing their song here.

Boring

As soon as she asks me the question, our conversation dies. Sitting at the side of the pool, swirling our feet in the water, she says, “Tell me about your your life. What’s new?”

I wrack my brain but quickly realize I have nothing to say. What could I say? My life, in comparison to hers, is so normal. With three well-adjusted kids, a good husband, and a comfortable home I feel, well… boring. Grasping for something that might sound engaging I blurt,”I taught struggling readers a year ago!” Does that count? What else? Should I tell her I read interesting books*? That even though I don’t appear interesting myself, I’ve read about interesting people?

“Do you guys live in the country?” She tries again–we’d been talking about permaculture and the crater garden she recently built on her farm.

“Uh, no” I answer lamely. I launch into a spiel about how no rural properties had been available when we were looking, when Vivian interrupts us before I finish.

“You should tell her about our garden. And the park behind our house,” Belén whispers to me. But by then, our conversation is over.

I met Barb when we came to fiddle camp two years earlier. Now we were back again, reacquainting ourselves with old faces and meeting new ones. Before the pool conversation I’d seen Barb at her trailer, her silvery hair pulled back into a low pony tail, feeding their adopted crow. They found the crow with a broken leg weeks before camp and even though she had 6 of her own children to pack up, she knew she couldn’t leave the bird on its own.

“Of course!” I joke when she tells me about bringing the bird, “You need more to do.” But as far as I can tell, nothing seems too overwhelming for her. As a single mother, raising permanent foster children, she also runs an organic farm, home schools the kids, and makes sure they are steeped in music. While passing bread crumbs to the crow with one hand, and carding raw wool with the other, she explains how music affects the brain and why she thinks it has something to do with the reason her children don’t exhibit the typical symptoms of FAS, even though they were exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero. Later in the day, after supper, I see her spinning wool with a drop spindle. And why not? Why not spin your own wool after making a bonfire, roasting wieners, and kayaking with a pack of children?

She’s not the only one at camp I want to find more about. While Michael designs my latte with steamed milk, he tells me he used to preach, instead of grind coffee, for a living. “Owning a coffee shop is a lot like being a professional Christian.” I look confused so he explains, “Professional Christian? Oh, that’s just what I call being a pastor.” He goes on, “I talk to a lot of people every day. You know, planning funerals, marital counseling… I do it all over drinks. I guess if anyone wanted to hire me as a professional Christian again I’d ask them if I could just go ahead and keep baking. Keep making coffee. Keep doing what I’m doing.”

Then there’s Easton, a twenty-something from Florida who just spent a month at a Zen monastery in New York, decided to wwoof in Canada, and landed up here at the Kitchen Party to learn the banjo. I also meet Anna; she tells me about living in Ecuador with her children and the ten-day canoe trips they take every year. One evening, during an outdoor concert, I share a picnic bench with one of the instructors. Cara Luft, singer-songwriter, banjo and guitar player extraordinaire (also founding member of the Wailin’ Jennys), tells me about life in the music business. “I live in Winnipeg but I’m not there much.” She travels across the globe, as do many of the musicians who instruct at this camp, and I feel a little star-struck. We listen to the band playing on stage and between songs and I ask her as many questions as I can. I’m curious about what it must be like to be her; famous, talented, and so very… interesting. Then she asks me a question.

“Are you here with anyone, or just your kids?”

“Oh, yeah… I mean, no. I have a husband, but he’s not here. He’ll come for the concert on Friday night.”

She nods in my direction and I look at the smile lines around her mouth. She must be around my age. Maybe forty?

“And You?”

“Nope, I’m all alone.” She fakes sobbing, her eyes still twinkling, and I laugh but suddenly I’m less star-struck.

The band on stage is introducing their next tune–something about performing it in Tasmania this winter. Then the blue-eyed fiddler starts singing his heart-breaking song, and when all the teen-age girls swoon I think about the people around me: the woman who invests herself in her foster children, the pastor-turned-barista, the canoeing family, and all the traveling musicians. There are many ways to live. So many ways to be.  Famous, single, married, musical, generous, rich, poor…

Stan comes on the last evening like I said he would. He leans forward and watches our daughters with a wide grin as they perform what they’ve learned this week. When Vivian gets tired I leave the crowd and stroll her under starlight while string music floats on the warm wind. Soon camp will be over; there will be goodbyes and promises for next year; musicians will pack up instruments and head for the road. We will too; but we’ll be going home, back to our own life. And I’m so glad it’s ours, boring as ever.

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*This well-written memoir by Alabama lawyer, Bryan Stevenson angered, shocked, and inspired me all at the same time. I’d be curious to hear how a Canadian lawyer with experience in our criminal justice system might respond to his stories. Hint, hint 🙂

 

Where All the Children are Above Average

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The final rehearsal at Shivering Strings–a music camp for fiddle, banjo, guitar, and keyboard players.

I lean across the table and ask the lady with the arched eyebrows my question for the third time. I want to know how she does it, or rather, how she makes her daughter do it.

“Tell me your schedule,” I press. “I want to know how you spend every hour of every day.”

If this mom is taken aback by my interrogation she doesn’t show it. I think she senses my fascination and that I’m truly curious how anyone manages to get a 10-year-old to practise violin for two hours a day–on top of competitive dance, voice lessons, and musical theatre.

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Belén working up calluses with those pesky bar chords!

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Susanna plays by ear so this camp was a stretch for her. (Other events we’ve attended like this have discouraged any note-reading.)

She explains how they practise an hour in the morning (she plays along with her daughter during every practise) and another hour in the evening. On weekends they play for three hours, or more, per day. When she sees my mouth hanging open she gives me more details.

“I’ve set up a schedule with my computer and we follow it strictly; there’s no other way to fit in the dance and singing classes if we’re not organized.”

I must be wide-eyed, still, because she tries again with a smile.

“… Have you ever read the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother?”

I’ve not read the book–reading about the book was enough for me–but I appreciate her willingness to offer artifacts from her culture to help me understand where she’s coming from.

“When do you sleep?” I ask now, steering my attention to the girl. I might’ve asked about play (as in toys, trees and neighbourhood kids) but I’d heard enough to know it wasn’t in the week-day schedule.

“I go to bed around 9:30 or 10,” she answers, which leads to my next question about homeschooling. Perhaps I’ve found their secret; they must slave away every evening only to sleep in and watch cartoons before a late-morning practise!

I quickly learn they don’t watch TV and that she attends a French Immersion school (where all content area is taught in French–one more thing for her to learn.) As we continue visiting I’m beginning to realize there might not be any secret to discover. If she wants to be a serious violinist when she grows up, as she claims, she needs to spend her childhood practising. If this beautiful mother, who wants so much more for her child than she ever had, intends to push her daughter through the easy inlet of average and on to the spawning grounds of excellence, she needs to insist on structure and discipline. Just as salmon leap onward against the current, neither mother, nor daughter, can afford any backward glances at the lowlands.

I feel like an ethnographer interviewing someone from a foreign tribe and I’m trying to memorize everything she says so I can report it all to Stan. Later on, when I repeat the conversation I’ll hesitate for a moment, not sure I want to offer him free fuel for his argument against mediocrity. Because while I have my feet firmly planted on middle-ground, Stan is skeptical of my enthusiasm for being unexceptional. Of course, this also plays into our expectations for our own children and how we parent. While I wax poetic about being well-rounded, happy, healthy, and socially apt, Stan points out examples of people who capitalize on their capabilities through sweat and tears, to inspire us to reach higher.

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Stan has never taken guitar lessons, so this was his first chance to learn along with his daughter in a slightly more formal setting than our living room.

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Susanna and I were in the same class. Although she is much better at playing by ear, I can read music, so together we made a good team.

My favourite part of the American radio show, Prairie Home Companion, is the line Garrison Keillor uses to describe Lake Wobegone, “where all the woman are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Come on, admit it… didn’t we all want to be strong, good-looking, and above average–before we we realized we probably couldn’t pull it off? And then, wasn’t it easy to hope that perhaps those fleshy little lumps, carrying bits and pieces of ourselves and even our last names, could do better than we did?

After meeting beautiful-tiger-mamma, I’ve changed a bit this week. I’ve mandated longer practises (the actual play time is now equal to the portion of the practise spent going to the bathroom, tuning, rosining the bow, adjusting the music stand, etc). I’ve been pickier. I’ve yelled more. And honestly, it’s been a drag. Through it all, I’ve also thought about Lucy. (If you’re new here, she’s my one-year old niece who’s been battling cancer for 5 months). And after all those tears, prayers, fevers and waves of hopelessness, she’s still here! As she fought her way through her last round of chemo with smiles and new sets of eyelashes, I had this wild yell building up inside that I couldn’t wait to shout: “SHE’S GONNA LIVE! Thank you Jesus!” Do I care if she becomes an accomplished musician? Does it matter if she’ll ever shoot a three-pointer? (Well, maybe to her dad.:)) Does she have to “make something of herself” to make her recovery worthwhile? No. Her life is precious because she’s got it.

And the crazy thing is, our children have the same gift she’s been given. It’s hard to remember when I’m pushing, negotiating, demanding and cajoling, but it’s true. They’re here! They’re alive and well! Their lives are worthwhile whether they can play perfectly on tune, or not.

…But, I’m still going to wake them for an early-morning practise tomorrow. They can thank tiger-mamma for that one.

Near the median, and sincerely yours,

Tricia

PS. I  never got to explaining the pictures very well, did I? They were taken last weekend at a 2-day music camp in Saskatoon which included a dance, concert, and hours of old-time, Cajun, Quebecois and Metis music.

Caramel Corn Recipe, DIY Fiddle hooks, and Susie

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Susanna (far right) with her classmates at her birthday party

Sometimes I think Susanna might be auditioning for the lead role in a play titled, When Children Push the Limits. Last week her acting was spot on, with fantastic physicality and larger-than-life facial expressions. In the end, she blew past all other contenders because of her impressive vocal strength and stamina. There were times during these “auditions” (aka altercations) when I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or hearing. Between deep breaths (in effort to control my own unpleasant, visceral impulses) I actually had to suppress a laugh or two, because of the hyperbole in her script.

Of course, we talked so she could listen and listened so she could talk* but she was on such a roll, nothing could distract her from her stage… until she decided she was going to step away from the bright lights, all on her own. When things settled, and she decided to withdraw her name from the casting list (for now) we discussed who the true Susanna really is. She is a girl with a thousand nick names and a belly laugh; a cuddler with sweet breath and soft cheeks; a curious observer of small details (she makes her daddy proud); a baby lover and animal avoider; a cupcake baker and mushroom hater; a favourite with the elderly and her teachers; a speedy reader; and a sucker for silliness.

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Five different families in this bunch, and at least 6 different languages!

A rare moment going through the corn maze: an adult (Stan) at the front of the pack of kids

A rare moment going through the corn maze: an adult (Stan) at the front of the pack of kids

Our best Susanna makes life so much more liveable around here. We can rely on her to drop whatever she’s doing (if she’s not in one of her aforementioned auditions) whenever I start reading a book out loud, or playing my violin. In the latter case, all I have to do is sound a few notes and she’ll leave her dolls, or conversation, mid-sentence and move towards her fiddle, reaching for it as if in a trance. This works particularly well with a rousing jig, although classical Minuets still do the trick. A quick way to get her really wound up is to listen to the Orange Blossom Special, or a tickle session with her Grandpa in Indiana.

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No more tripping over instruments around here! Stan made these innovative hooks to hang our fiddles from our bar. He attached two more to the sides of our piano for the guitars.

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A few days ago, Susie (or Shoshanna, Shoshie, Shoshapaloze, Zanzabar, Suza) turned seven. And, I have to admit, with all the acting around here, I wasn’t sure the real Susanna was going to show up for the party. Much to our relief, she did, and we all had a great time running through corn stalks, burning marshmallows, and getting lost. One of the highlights, for Susanna, was doling out the treat bags. (Yes, our best Susanna was in the house!) She’d made the most buttery, perfectly sweet, caramel corn–with a little help from the rest of us. So if you’ve read through all our family details just to get to this recipe, you’ve arrived. Here it is:

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Caramel Popcorn for Fall Parties (adapted from my Auntie Millie’s recipe)

  • a bunch of popped popcorn (2 cups unpopped kernels)
  • some peanuts (optional)
  • 2 1/2 cups brown sugar
  • 3/4 c light corn syrup
  • 1 1/4-ish cups butter
  • 1/2 or 3/4 tsp tsp baking soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla

Pop the corn, add peanuts, and place dry mix in two large bowls. Melt butter, syrup and sugar on low heat, and let boil for five minutes, stirring constantly. Remove caramel from heat and add soda and vanilla. Pour over popcorn/peanuts, stirring for good coverage. Spread popcorn onto a couple baking sheets and let dry before packing into treat bags.

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All this drama could get me good and worried about my little girl. Does she have a chemical imbalance? Has something terrible happened to her in a dark closet that I don’t know about? What can I expect in ten years from now if we’re struggling already? But then I remember that she was just 6 last week, and now she’s learning how to be 7. And being the best person you can be, at 7, takes work. I guess it’s about as hard as it is for some thirty-six year olds I know.**

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Enjoy the rest of your week,

Tricia

*Have you read the book? Why don’t these strategies actually work when you need them?

**This weekend we decided our whole family needs to memorize this verse from the Bible: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

I suggested each one of us pick a “fruit” to concentrate on for the following week. “Why don’t we all share the one we want to work on so we can encourage each other?” I said.

Both Stan and I noticed Susanna’s finger tracking the first few attributes and I interrupted her as she was about to announce her choice, “I think you’ve got love covered, and certainly, joy. How about…”

Self-control?” she finished, to our relief.

“Yes, that’s a great choice, Susanna. I’ll pick patience,” I said.

Belén remarked pointedly, “I was hoping you’d say that, Mom.”

Mmm… it appears we all need help with something.

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What do energy consumption, a school classroom, and fiddle camp have in common?

Isn’t it weird when you hear the same message from several different sources? Like when every book you read seems to point to a similar truth, or random people talk to you about a certain issue. Lately it’s been that way for me as I learn about the power people have over other people–otherwise known as community. In the last month, I’ve heard the same message from a behavioural scientist, an elementary school teacher, and a fiddle intsructor: positive change and growth happens with other people. I guess it’s not that earth shattering–I learned about peer pressure in junior high health class and we know, intuitively, that humans are social creatures–but it still fascinates me.DSCN5850_

Alex Laskey shares (on TEDtalks) about the best way to encourage homeowners to consume less energy. He’s found that residents don’t respond to moral pleas (help save our planet) or even financial incentives (energy efficient fixtures save you money). What really works is social pressure; letting people know how much energy they use compared to their neighbours. Once people find out the Jones’ energy bill is a fraction of their own, only then are they motivated to make lifestyle changes.

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Belén, at a the nightly circle jam where 80 musicians sat in a big circle and played/improvised the same tune. Instruction in fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo and keyboard was offered during the day.

During the last month of school I visited my friend’s fifth grade classroom to observe how she motivates her students. The moment I stepped through the doorway I recognized one of her top priorities: to foster a community of readers. There were couches, chairs, even a fireplace! and baskets of books everywhere. When it was time for individual reading the students scuttled away with their books like cockroaches, trying to find a corner to settle into. Later, my friend gathered the students into a circle to talk about what they’d been reading and make recommendations for the summer. From the tone of their voices I might have thought they were discussing their summer plans or a vacation at Disneyland, when they were actually suggesting the next title their friends should get their hands on.

The atmosphere in the classroom didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t a random phenomenon. My teacher friend is passionate about turning ho-hum readers into voracious consumers of literature, and she does this through community; intentionally making her classroom a place where every student ups the ante, talking about the books they love and hate. By the end of the year they all experience the explosive nature of community… and they’ve all read more books than they would’ve imagined possible.

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This was after a day of workshops. I was really tired and intended to take a nap, but then Susanna started playing “Pelican Reel” and I had to pick up my fiddle to learn it.

As you can tell from the pictures, we were making music last week… in community.

I heard Susanna’s instructor, Gordon Stobbe, comment, “The fiddle is a social instrument… you don’t play it alone in your basement to get better. It comes alive with other instruments.” And after a week of playing with other people, I think he’s right. In four days we learned more tunes and technique than months of weekly lessons/practise.

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Susanna’s class. They had Gordon Stobbe all to themselves for the week!

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Susanna, at age six, was the second youngest camper, but she wasn’t in the beginners class. In her place, was a seventy-four-year-old man who wanted to learn how to play the violin. When I congratulated him on taking the initiative to come to camp, he grinned and said, “Aw, I shoulda’ started thirty years ago.”

“But you’re here now,” I reminded him. “I hope I remember you when I’m seventy-four and think it’s too late to learn something new.”

Most evenings there were square dances and also old-time dances. There’s something about do-si-doing with teenagers and octogenarians that makes the world seem like a better place.

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My mom came along for part of the week. She didn’t take any classes but joined in on the dancing, food, and concerts.

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… she also joined us in our cozy tent.

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Street signs around town are named after popular fiddle tunes.

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one of the workshop venues: an old orthodox church

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playing inside the church

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Saying goodbye to new friends…

One of the best resources for tapping into growth and transformation is all around us: the people we connect with. They can reduce our energy consumption, turn us into readers and make our fiddles sing!

Wishing you great connections today,

Tricia

Landfill Harmonic Orchestra

How do yo feel when you stumble across something that is at once beautiful and painful; brilliant and unexpected?  If you are not sure of the answer, check out this article and watch the short trailer to find out.

Be inspired,

Tricia

Good Words: Dimming of the Day

I was first introduced to Richard Thompson’s music in a dingy cabin that smelled of fish and smoke, on the shores of Great Slave Lake, N.W.T.  It was the summer of 1997 and Thompson, a British singer/songwriter, had been recording music for over 25 years by that point, but I had never heard of him.

Here is a ballad with good harmonies he wrote and sang with his wife, from the album Pour Down Like Silver (1975).

This old house is falling down around my ears
I’m drowning in a river of my tears
When all my will is gone you hold me sway
I need you at the dimming of the day

You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side…

Come the night you’re only what I want
Come the night you could be my confident…

I need you at the dimming of the day
I need you at the dimming of the day

I skipped some parts in the song, but those are the lines I like best.  (I’ve been thinking of that last phrase all week, especially as we move towards night in our home.)

You can hear it here.  I recommend you listen to it when you are not rushed.  It is slow… slow…  slow–and beautiful; something that goes with candles and a glass of wine or a cup of tea.

He also sings it with Bonie Raitt, and I like their version just as well.  It’s a little more throaty.  You can watch, and listen to them here.

Happy Friday!  Happy weekend!  Now go hum the song to your special someone…

*My own end of the week tradition: words in song or story that move me in some way.  I might type my very favourite parts in bold text, and I’ll always try to post a link, or two, so you can get more if you want it. Enjoy!