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High School Singing

In middle school, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of college. I wasn’t wild about school, and wasn’t looking forward to another four years of school after high school, especially if I had to take math. But I was beginning to think that if my parents and teachers insisted I go to college, I would study music. In my immaturity and blissful ignorance of reality, I figured that after college, I could then audition for a paid singing position in some prestigious choir that travels the world. There’s that subconscious longing for the restoration again. I longed for something more than the boring day jobs the adults around me talked about and thought that a unique and prestigious life was what I longed for.

But then I found out that if I wanted to really pursue a music career, I would need to learn to read music. All of my life, I had been learning choir songs by ear. I would just sit and listen to the rest of the choir sight-read a new song the first few times and then gradually join in. If I had trouble deciphering the words to a song, either because the song was in a foreign language, or the words were old English words I wasn’t used to, or the words were stretched out over many notes making them difficult to decipher when sung, my mom would read the words from the print music to me and I would transcribe them into braille. If practice CDs were available, I would take one home to review. The school choirs never had practice CDs, but the Milwaukee Children’s Choir often did, as does the choir I sing in today. I wish all choirs put together practice CDs because even for sighted people who can read music, they are helpful. Of course, nowadays, it is so easy to find another choir singing any song on iTunes or Youtube. There is a braille music code, and in eighth grade when I expressed interest in a music career, my vision teacher gave me a little introduction into it. A couple months later, I ordered a braille music tutorial from National Braille Press with the intention of teaching myself. But it was so complicated with many different symbols to denote every detail of a note—like whether it was a quarter note, half note, eighth note or sixteenth note, and the dynamic of the note (loud or soft)—that I quickly became overwhelmed. And even if I persevered and mastered this code, I couldn’t see how it would be practical in a real choir setting. When choir directors introduce a new song, they start by having the choir sight-read it, meaning that the choir has never seen that piece of music before but just reads it and muddles through the best they can the first time. I couldn’t see how I would be able to keep up with the choir when sight-reading it, so I would need to get the music ahead of time, study it at my own pace and maybe plunk out the notes on the piano, which I could have done if I really wanted to. But learning by ear the way I always had seemed so much more efficient and so I still learn my choir music by ear today.

As a side note, while sheet music is useful for learning a new piece of music, I wish that memorizing the music before concert time was a requirement in all choirs. In elementary school and middle school when the songs were relatively simple, memorization was required, but in high school when we started singing more challenging music, both my school choir and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir directors started allowing the choir to bring concert folders onstage so they could refer to their music. The choir I sing with now also brings their music onstage. I will confess that I don’t always practice what I preach myself. In fact in our most recent choir concert this past May 5, I referred to the words of two german pieces we sang that night because letters are pronounced differently in German and when I tried to sing from memory during rehearsal, I forgot the words and feared goofing up royally if I tried to sing from memory at the concert. But when I don’t refer to my “music” I find that I enjoy the concert experience more. For my fellow sighted choir members, singing a concert using music is a carefully choreographed art that the choir director has to discuss with the choir at every dress rehearsal before a concert. They must find that balance between looking at their music enough to help them, but not so much that they aren’t watching the choir director and thus miss important cues. They must also practice quiet page turning, and make sure they are still engaging with the audience, not just burying their faces in their music. With all these logistics they have to focus on at every concert, sometimes, I fear that my choir mates are nervous and view the concert as something to survive without any major blunders, and thus cannot truly enjoy the experience of engaging with the audience, or letting the beautiful words and melodies of each song transport them.

In high school, music theory, which meant practicing drawing notes on a musical staff and sight-reading took on a larger role in choral classes. I was delighted when the director of the Cantorei Choir created a Cantorei Chamber choir for older students which I was able to join my junior year of high school. But for this choir, the director gave everyone music theory workbooks and time was set aside in most rehearsals to do exercises out of this book. The high school choir director gave music theory assignments as well. Fortunately both choir directors were fine with the fact that I did not read music and let me sit these exercises out, but I kind of felt bad for my sighted choir members as I felt it took something that was supposed to be a joyful pursuit and turned it into drudgery. So in high school, I began to have second thoughts about majoring in music when I got to college. Then, in my sophomore year, I visited the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee which had a special event for prospective college students with disabilities. After a general large group meeting, we had the opportunity to split up and go to presentations about admission requirements for programs we might be interested in, so my vision teacher took me to the presentation for the music program. During this presentation, when the director outlined the requirements for submitting a portfolio with samples of work in areas that included musical theory and performance, I decided I did not want to major in music after all. I had this fear that the stress of trying to assemble such a portfolio, and just the drudgery of four years of music theory and performing recitals for a grade would burn me out to the point that I would lose my passion for music. I was all for challenging myself and learning new music, and I absolutely still wanted to sing with people who took music seriously and wouldn’t goof off and be disruptive, but ultimately I just wanted to sing for the joy of singing and keep that child-like flame of true passion for music alive. I ended up studying journalism, something I enjoy, but in a different way, and I am not as emotionally attached to it as I am to singing.

Unlike middle school, music was not a requirement in high school. I think only one semester of fine arts was required in high school, and students who had no interest in music could fulfill this requirement with things like art, photography, or woodworking. For this reason, although there was still disruptive behavior on occasion, it didn’t reach the level that it did in middle school because everyone who chose to join the choir had at least some passion for singing and was thus willing to take rehearsals seriously. Freshman year, all girls who wanted to be in choir started in a choir solely for freshmen girls. At the time, I was a little miffed that I couldn’t go right to the big leagues when after all, I had already sang with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and been to Italy, but I ended up really enjoying this choir. Because the choir just comprised freshmen women, it was a smaller choir, only around thirty of us, which meant that the director could give us one-on-one attention. I thought we sounded like a children’s choir at the beginning of the year, but over the course of that year, the director worked with us a lot on having a fuller, more mature sound. Now I realize this choir was a good idea as women’s voices change at this age and it was a great way to get used to singing in the high school setting. At the end of freshman year, we could audition for Chamber Choir, the most advanced choir which was open to both men and women sophomore, junior and senior year. If we were not accepted into Chamber Choir, we could still sing in Concert Choir, an excellent choir that just sang less challenging music. I auditioned for Chamber Choir at the end of freshman year and to my delight, I was accepted!

Chamber choir rehearsed the last hour of the school day which at first I thought would be wonderful. After a hard day of academic classes, I would end the day with singing. But the demands of my other classes kept me up late every night, and some semesters I did not have a study hall to work out math or technology challenges, so I had to have a working lunch in the library or the office where my teacher’s aid produced class materials for me. So by the end of the day, I was absolutely exhausted. I also had a lot of headaches at that time of my life. Usually they were not severe enough that I had to stay home, but they were just those relentless nagging headaches that sap you of all ambition. Looking back I realize this was probably the beginning of my body’s intolerance to gluten. The headaches increased in frequency and severity over the years until I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease shortly after college graduation. Anyway, this combination of factors made it very difficult to maintain a positive attitude when we had to tediously drill notes day after day, and were stopped constantly by the choir director to correct a stylistic mistake or wrong note. To add insult to injury, instead of sitting in rows of chairs to drill notes, and standing intermittently to sing, this director had us stand on rows of risers pretty much the entire rehearsal, so by the end of class, my feet hurt. This was probably a good thing though because if we had had chairs, I am sure I would have fallen asleep. My energy level was usually much improved by evening when I would often recline on the couch intending to watch a television program but would end up falling asleep. I had Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals once a week, and even when I had to go back to school for the occasional evening rehearsal before a couple big concerts, my energy level and attitude were much improved. I was scared and sad when during my junior year, the choir director noticed this negativity, especially when I started leaving a little bit too early to catch the bus. How had I come so far from that little kid with such passion for singing? To my high school choir director if you ever find this blog: I want you to know I am sorry for my negative attitude back then. I still hate the process of drilling notes (who doesn’t?). But I am still singing in choir today because when the drilling is done and a beautiful concert comes together, the child within me comes alive again.

One particularly difficult rehearsal when the director got the sense that the whole class had a negative attitude about all the drilling and nagging about stylistic mistakes, the director said that although it seemed like she was being mean, she was being tough on us because she loved us and wanted us to be the best we could be, and in the long run, we wouldn’t really want a choir director that didn’t push us when she sensed we could do better. That’s when I really understood the importance of teachers setting high expectations. The teacher who settles for “good enough” in the moment may seem kinder, but it is the teacher who pushes you to be better who really cares about her students. Perhaps to drive this point home, this choir director required us to attend a choral concert at another high school in the area each semester and write a paper critiquing their concert. Most of the schools I went to also had excellent music programs. I still thought our choir was the best, but I was a bit biased. But a couple schools left me feeling sad because I got the sense from the song selection and the kind of mistakes that were made that these programs did not set high expectations for their students, and I actually felt kind of sorry for these students who weren’t getting the incredible rewarding experience of singing challenging music.

This hard work yielded wonderful opportunities. My sophomore and senior years, all the school choirs participated in a choral competition: sophomore year the competition was held in San Diego, and senior year it was in Williamsburg, Virginia. We swept both of these competitions, and got a nice vacation from school as well. Sophomore year, all of the choirs also had the opportunity to perform a holiday concert with the Waukesha Symphony Orchestra. I was so excited for my peers to have the amazing experience of hearing songs come alive in a whole new way with a full orchestra as I had already gotten to experience with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. I loved getting this experience again too as that kind of magic never gets old. My junior year, just the Chamber Choir was invited to sing in a choral festival at Saint Olaf College. Our choir was the first to perform and every time I listen to the CD from that festival, I still feel amazed and blessed that I had the opportunity to be part of a choir that sounded so amazing. There were also a few songs that all of the choirs in attendance at the festival sang together. Since there were around a thousand of us in all, we could not all fit onto a stage, so we sat in rows of folding chairs in a gymnasium while individual choirs performed onstage, and then stood up for the combined songs. This was the most amazing and truly joyful rendition of Joy to the World that I have ever or probably will ever sing this side of the restoration. Since we were spread out instead of crammed onto a small stage, our sound filled the room. It felt like a big happy church service, except unlike church where a lot of people are too shy to sing, everyone in that room was a choir singer, and we sang loud and joyful. It really was heavenly!

My sophomore year, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir was invited to sing a Christmas piece in Carnegie Hall. The piece was called the Christmas Sweet, and it was so much fun to sing. When I first heard a recording of this piece, I was enchanted because it sounded so “New York during the holiday season” even though at that time, I had never been to New York, during the holidays or otherwise. But when an adult soloist accompanied by a soft orchestra in the background sang “when the frost starts to glisten, and the nights flush with cold, and the streets shimmer gold, it’s Christmas,” I was transported by this song. From that first movement, through movements about shepherds in the field, to a movement about children playing in the snow, and even a silly movement in which we simply sang the words Merry Christmas to different melodies, this choral work was magical from the first note to the last, capturing the essence of everything that makes Christmas so special. The last concert I ever sang with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir was the holiday pops concert my senior year. I actually didn’t know this would be my last concert with this choir, at the time, but second semester, there were several extra school rehearsals to prepare for the competition in Williamsburg which conflicted with Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals. But looking back, I couldn’t have asked for a more magical last memory of my children’s choir days. Part of the reason I think it was so magical was that I could truly enjoy it as school was going smoothly and for once I understood the math concept we were studying so homework didn’t take me quite so long. At the same time, I had just come through a really difficult math unit and singing a joyful concert was just the breath of fresh air I needed. But I also loved it because Bill Conti, the guest conductor of this concert selected the most amazing set of songs that captured the childhood magic of Christmas. The Cantorei Chamber Choir started the concert with Candles in the Window from Home Alone the words of which are beautiful by themselves, but come alive even more accompanied by the full orchestra, especially the beautiful silky tones of the violin. Then we collaborated with the adults of the Symphony Chorus and sang all the Christmas favorites including Jingle Bells, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Sleigh Ride and Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, complete with instrumental sound effects for the horses and toys from the orchestra. For my last concert with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, and my second-to-last concert as a minor—I turned eighteen the following March—I could not have asked for a more magical farewell to childhood. But the beautiful thing about music is that unlike athletic pursuits which can only be enjoyed in youth, choir is a passion that I can enjoy my whole life. In the next post, I will talk about my college choir experience and the choir I sing in now.


On Memorial Day Weekend and Ultimate Hope

Well readers, remember this post in which I talk about how even for people who believe in the Restoration, it is all too easy to slip up and place our ultimate hope in the wrong things? I told you I would update you on whether I could adopt this eternal perspective when faced with disappointment, and unfortunately this weekend, I slipped up again.

I am not a huge fan of summer itself. My favorite season is Spring. We will get a few perfect summer days, but often times, summer days are too hot, humid and buggy for me. I start getting a headache and feeling weak after just a short time in the sun, and after dark especially, the mosquitoes eat me alive. If it is below 75 degrees or so, I love nothing more than going for a walk or taking a braille book outside to read on my porch swing, but above 80 degrees, I just want to read or write in the comfort of air conditioning. But I love Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer. Oftentimes, the weather is absolutely perfect on Memorial Day weekend, not hot or humid the way it usually is on the fourth of July. I love the festive atmosphere of Memorial Day weekend as our neighborhood which was frozen and quiet all winter, which often onofficially extends into May, comes alive again with happy voices of children playing and people having bonfires and picnics. Memorial Day weekend is sometimes the first weekend you can ride in the car with the windows rolled down. I also love the fact that Memorial Day is always on a Monday, so rather than preparing for work or school Sunday night, we can have a leisurely cookout, and then take a late evening walk to smell the lilacs and hear the beautiful sounds of late spring, especially the mating calls of the frogs from my neighbor’s pond up close, rather than just through the window as I get ready for bed. Then on Memorial Day itself, we have a leisurely breakfast and then we dust off our lawn chairs, load them into our van and drive to a neighboring community to see a parade. I know parades are somewhat visual, but I love just the festive atmosphere, and the moments when a marching band or a bagpipe and bugle corps march by are so spectacular it is worth waiting through the visual stuff.

But in 2016, this idyllic weekend was shattered by a rejection letter. As I discussed in this post, my job was causing me a tremendous amount of anxiety, but I was so excited about a position with the State of Wisconsin as an Equal Rights Officer. It would have been a higher level position investigating cases of employment discrimination and it was located in Madison so I would get to experience living on my own. When I woke up the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend 2016, I was on top of the world. I hadn’t had a long weekend off since New Year’s Day except for one Monday I requested off to go to Madison to interview for a position in the Public Defender’s office, but that doesn’t really count as a day off since getting suited up and mentally preparing for an interview is nerveracking. In those dark days, it seemed as though Memorial Day Weekend would never come, but at last, it was here! I remember waking up and having a leisurely breakfast, and then having a wonderful bible study with my Jehovah’s Witness friends. After that, Dad and I went to Chipotle, our favorite Saturday lunch spot and had a peaceful lunch. Mom usually went with us, but she didn’t feel like going for some reason. I forget why, but Dad and I wanted to go, so we went out just the two of us. On the way home, I distinctly remember driving slow with the windows rolled down enjoying a glorious warm spring breeze. Jimmy Buffett’s song Volcano came on the radio, which is one of my favorite songs to sing along too. When we got home, I planned to sit on the porch swing and read My Side of the Mountain. I remember loving this book when I read it in fifth grade, but had kind of forgotten what exactly happened in the story. I remembered the basic premise of a boy living in the city who ran away from home and taught himself to live in the wilderness, but couldn’t remember a lot of detail, so when I saw that this book was available from Seedlings, a company that produces braille books for children at a reasonable price, I felt compelled to order it for Memorial Day weekend thinking it would be a therapeutic, fun, easy read. But then Dad pulled up to the mailbox to get the mail, and in that pile of mail was the rejection letter. I thought I had interviewed well for this position, and while the rejection letter for the public defender position came pretty quickly after that interview, I thought it was promising that the Equal Rights Position hadn’t responded yet. Hope was still alive Saturday morning, but now that hope was dashed, and I had looked at the job boards Friday evening and there were no promising prospects. Would I be stuck in this miserable position forever? I wasn’t sure how much longer I would be able to stand it. All around me, the rest of the world was enjoying an idyllic Memorial Day Weekend. I went through the motions of enjoying the weekend. Saturday afternoon, I went out to the swing and tried to read My Side of the Mountain, but after reading the first paragraph ten times, it was clear I couldn’t focus, so I gave up. I went to church with Mom and came down from my room for meals with my family. My dad cooked steak and baked potatoes on the grill Sunday evening, and we ate in our dining room with the window open enjoying a pleasant cool evening breeze, but my heart wasn’t in this moment. In high school I discovered that on the eve of Memorial Day each year, PBS broadcasts a Memorial Day concert from Washington DC. The music in this concert is always beautiful and the solemn reading of letters from soldiers who were killed or wounded, or their loved ones really put life into perspective. It became a tradition for my parents and I to watch this concert every year, but as I despondently sat down to watch this concert in 2016, I just couldn’t pay attention to these soldiers and their families who really had something to cry about. All I could think about was my feeling of hopelessness, and this made me feel even worse. By Monday evening, I realized I needed to get myself together because I had to work the next day, so to give myself hope, I made two resolutions. The first one was healthy and positive. The second one I now realize, was bizarre and petty. The first resolution was that by next Memorial Day weekend, one way or another, my circumstances would be different. If I couldn’t find another job and my current job was the same, I would quit. If I burned through my savings paying for insurance and could no longer afford it, then I would be uninsured. This first resolution was achieved. After Christmas, I exclusively handled appeals for other case managers and my anxiety soon melted away, and then in February 2017, I switched to a part-time schedule and have been at peace with this decision ever since. But the second petty resolution was that I was bound and determined that next year, I would have a do-over of this ruined weekend and have the perfect Memorial Day Weekend.

In March 2017, Mom went down to Indiana to take my grandma to a doctor appointment. She planned to go down on Thursday March 23 and come home on Saturday, but ended up having to rush back on Friday because of my seizure. Then in April, my mom needed shoulder surgery and was not able to drive, or sit in a car for a long period of time. By May, Mom was not comfortable driving yet, but she felt she could handle sitting in the car, so she wanted to make a trip back to Indiana. The original plan was to make a quick trip to Indiana the weekend before Memorial Day weekend, but that week, Dad came down with a really nasty cold and was still coughing up a lung Saturday morning. Mom and Dad decided rightly that it wouldn’t be smart to go to Indiana with him in this condition, especially since Grandma’s immunity might be weak. So they decided Memorial Day weekend was the most sensible plan B, especially since with my new part-time schedule, I had a four day weekend. We could leave Saturday morning, stay for a parade my cousin would be marching in, after which my aunt always hosts a cookout, and then come home late Monday evening.

But the older I get, the more I hate overnight travel of any kind. I hate the commotion of packing for the trip, the difficulty of cooking a gluten free breakfast in an unfamiliar kitchen, the loss of freedom and independence I feel in an unfamiliar setting, everything. I would not have enjoyed it the weekend before either, but the fact that I had to travel on my precious, long-awaited Memorial Day weekend made me even more disappointed. I could have stayed home, but I could tell my parents were nervous about leaving me home alone for that long after my seizure incident, and if I did stay home, there would be no cookout, parade, or pleasant outdoor walks because I don’t know how to use the grill, and where we live, there are no sidewalks so someone needs to go with me for walks, and we have to drive to our parade route. Either way, I wouldn’t be getting the idyllic Memorial Day weekend I had hoped for, but I decided all in all, I would have more fun if I came along than if I was stuck home alone. So instead of a leisurely breakfast that Saturday morning, we ate a quick breakfast as we analyzed what we still needed to pack. I could tell it was going to be a glorious day outside, but instead of racing out to the swing with a book to savor it, I was preparing pre-measured bags with everything I would need to cook gluten free oatmeal for breakfast Sunday and Monday morning. Since Grandma now needed to live in an assisted living facility, there was no longer food in her refrigerator and we weren’t going to be staying long enough to warrant buying food to cook when we got there. While there are a few gluten free restaurant options for lunch and dinner, I would have to make breakfast myself.

On the trip down, we had a pleasant lunch at Cracker Barrel, and I enjoyed catching up with Grandma when we arrived that evening. Sunday was a peaceful day too. Per usual when cooking breakfast away from home, my oatmeal didn’t turn out right, but my mood improved when we went back to see Grandma and she showed me some of the things the therapist wanted her to do. We played catch together with a soft ball to work on coordination, and we laughed as we both kept missing the ball. And we would hear a THUNK as the ball hit the wall. In the afternoon, Dad and I went to an Italian restaurant in a town nearby that advertised gluten free options. It was delicious, and I especially enjoyed the sautéed spinach, something unique that I had never had before. Then we took a long walk on a nature trail. But in the evening, I started getting a headache, probably because I wasn’t used to the weather which was ten degrees warmer than it was at home. So we went back to Grandma’s house where I cooked a can of soup and went to bed early. Because Grandma was no longer living in her house, cable and internet service were cancelled. I tried to stream the Memorial Day Concert on my phone as I lay in bed using data but had no luck. I wanted to keep with tradition and watch it live, but it was being taped at home, so I accepted that I would just have to wait until then.

Mom brought a crockpot and all the ingredients to make a cherry cobbler to take to my aunt’s cookout. So on Memorial Day, she assembled the cobbler which she planned to cook at my aunt’s house during the parade. Then we proceeded to pack the car because after enjoying my aunt’s cookout and visiting Grandma one more time, we planned to head home. But that morning, it had rained a little, and this made the wooden ramp that leads down to the driveway of Grandma’s house very slippery. So while carrying something to the car, Mom fell. She had been warned that if she fell, she could undo her surgery, thus requiring another surgery, and Mom was in a lot of pain after this fall. We ended up quickly visiting Grandma, dropping the crockpot off at my aunt’s house and telling her to enjoy the cobbler without us, and then heading home early. We tried to make the best of things, going to Chipotle on the way home and then having a peaceful evening watching the Memorial Day Concert. But I felt so bad seeing Mom so upset and in so much pain, and there was such a palpable fear that she would have to undergo another surgery when recovery from the first one had been so rough that I was glad to see this Memorial Day Weekend come to an end. Next year, I vowed to myself, we are going to have the perfect Memorial Day weekend!

And so the countdown to Memorial Day weekend 2018 began, especially after New Year’s Day when we all desperately need some hope to get us through the long cold winter. Then at the end of April with just five weeks until Memorial Day, Dad and I were taking a walk when Dad suggested, “I was thinking for Memorial Day, the three of us could take a trip…” “No!” I said before he could even finish. “You know I would plan everything out and make sure there were good gluten free options and everything. And we would come back Sunday so we could still go to the parade Monday,” he said. My dad does do a great job planning things and sniffing out gluten free restaurants, but there was to be no stress, no packing hassles, no gross bowls of oatmeal in a hotel, no troubles of that sort marring this perfect Memorial Day weekend I had waited three years for. I just wanted a peaceful weekend at home, and I wanted to replicate the activities I was too sad to enjoy in 2016. Then a couple weeks later, we celebrated the birthday of the grandma on my dad’s side. For the past several years, my parents have been taking Grandma to a play, ballet performance or concert for her birthday and Christmas presents rather than buying stuff. She enjoys the arts but would not be able to get to these venues herself, and because I love the arts, I almost always come along as well. This year for her birthday, my parents decided to get tickets to a patriotic concert the Milwaukee Symphony Pops orchestra was performing in honor of Memorial Day. Now I absolutely love the Milwaukee Symphony Pops orchestra. I even got to perform with them when I was in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, so I was looking forward to hearing them again and reliving memories of when I was onstage with them in this very venue. What I didn’t like was the show time my parents chose. They thought about inviting Grandma over for a quick dinner and then going to the 8:00 show Friday evening, but instead decided to get tickets for the Sunday afternoon show and then have dinner afterwards. Normally I wouldn’t mind this arrangement either, but I knew Grandma would want to take us out to eat and since we would get home from the concert right at dinnertime, going out to eat would make more sense than cooking. Of course we could have the cookout Monday, and Mom said that is actually what people traditionally do, but in 2016 when we had the cookout Sunday, it seemed as though my parents enjoyed it more because their minds were not already thinking about work the next day, whereas the evening of Memorial Day itself has that Sunday night feel. I also wanted to be home in time to watch the National Memorial Day Concert since sometimes our DVR malfunctions.

On Thursday, we had to turn on our air conditioner for the first time this season, and the weather forecast said we would be in the 90s all weekend which is unusual for Memorial Day. So as I got ready for work Friday morning, I realized I would need to re-think my plan of reading on the porch swing all afternoon. Then on the way to work, Mom invited me to come along on a quick trip to visit my brother who lived about an hour and a half away, as we needed to give him some important mail that came to our house. As long as we were there, we would go out for brunch and then when we got home, we could go swimming in the afternoon. At first, sibling rivalry reared its ugly head and I was annoyed that we needed to visit him when he had come home and taken over the house the previous three Saturdays (more about this in a future post), but I really do love my brother, and we are a lot alike. The town where he lives has a surprising number of gluten free restaurants given that it is a smaller town than Milwaukee, and it was going to be too hot to sit on the swing and read so what else would I do. And I liked the idea of swimming in the afternoon. Swimming was my favorite summer pastime as a child, but as an adult, I was tired of the public pools over-run with screaming kids and too packed to move freely. About two years ago, my parents joined a gym with a really nice outdoor swimming pool, and after Christmas this past year, I decided to join too. Between nasty weather that sapped me of all motivation, and other family commitments, I had only been to the pool once in April, but now that it was unofficially summer, I resolved to start swimming regularly, ideally three days a week. But then after work Friday, I decided I better doublecheck the pool’s hours since their website indicated special hours for the holiday weekend, and to my fury, the pool was only open until 3:30. By the time we got back from visiting my brother, the pool would be closed, or it would be so close to closing time it wouldn’t make sense to try and get there! For heaven’s sake I had waited three years for a perfect, idyllic Memorial Day weekend and it was going to be screwed up again! My dad wanted to get to my brother’s place early because there are two bakeries he likes to visit there. (One of them is a gluten free bakery which I like too). He wanted to get there before all the good stuff was sold out. But when I informed Mom of the pool hours, we decided to swim for 45 minutes or so in the morning and then go visit my brother, but that meant inhaling breakfast and hurriedly changing into my swimsuit. Hurry was not supposed to be in the vocabulary of this idyllic Memorial Day weekend. I was absolutely furious that the universe wasn’t aligning in my favor. What kind of gym has such ridiculous swimming hours the first weekend of summer? ANY other weekend would have been a wonderful weekend to take the road trip to visit my brother. If only I were sighted, I could take myself swimming while my parents went to visit my brother. This first outdoor swim of the season was pleasant I guess, but I couldn’t fully enjoy it because I felt like I had to watch the clock, and my stomach was a tiny bit upset from having to inhale breakfast.

My mood gradually improved on the pleasant drive to visit my brother as my mom described the rolling countryside. We stocked up on goodies from both bakeries. Even my brother who does not have to eat gluten free food and would complain about the gluten free baked goods my mom and I would make when he lived at home, likes this bakery, so he picked out a few things too! Then we had a nice lunch at an Asian restaurant with a lot of gluten free options, which was exciting because while there is gluten free soy sauce on the market, most Asian restaurants use regular soy sauce and don’t say a word about gluten free options on their web sites. But as we were driving home from this pleasant afternoon with my brother, I was hit with three realizations, all having to do with how petty and stupid my behavior had been.

First, the original intention of Memorial Day was to remember soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. It is supposed to be a solemn time, but as is the case with many holidays that started with good intentions, our culture has corrupted it, with picnics, festivities and store sales taking center-stage and the solemn remembrance of fallen soldiers becoming secondary. With that in mind, watching the solemn National Memorial Day concert is really the only tradition that is truly in the spirit of Memorial Day. Related to that, I had made Memorial Day Weekend all about me, as if it were my birthday, not that it would have been okay to behave childishly on my birthday either, but at least if it were my birthday, I might have ben able to rationalize my disappointment a little bit. As it was, my behavior was nothing but petty and stupid because the holiday is not about me. I have this weird photographic memory where when major events of my life take place, I remember the exact date they occurred when no one else in the family does. My parents come to me with questions like “When did we adopt Snickers?” Sunday August 20, 2000. So while August 20 is just another day for the rest of the family, I am thinking about the happy moment we brought Snickers home. But this photographic memory applies to unhappy events too, so even though I am in a happier place now, I feel a little melancholy every year on May 28, the day I received that rejection letter. Perhaps I thought that if I had a super happy Memorial Day weekend the following year, I could in a sense blot out this sad moment from my memory. But rather than fixating on dates, I should just live life one moment at a time. Saturday May 28, 2016 was a sad day that will always be stored in my memory, but life is better now, and I have had many idyllic weekends, and idyllic Tuesdays and Thursdays since then. It’s not dates that matter, so after this past Memorial Day weekend, I am making it my goal not to fixate on dates anymore but just take life one moment at a time.

Second, my behavior was a shameful example of first-world problems. While I was furious because the pool hours weren’t convenient for what our family needed to do, and we were going out to dinner instead of having the cookout I envisioned Sunday, there are millions of people for whom just finding food and safe drinking water is a daily struggle, and yet according to one of our church pastors who had visited Africa, these people worship with a more genuine joy than people in developed countries. I have heard that in third-world countries, allergies don’t exist. The reason people in the developed world have allergies is because our environment is so sterilized that our immune systems have nothing to attack. But our immune systems were designed to fight and so in the absence of bacteria and parasites to fight off, the immune system reacts to harmless things like peanuts, gluten, eggs, or tree pollen. I think this is an excellent metaphor for life perspective too. Since we don’t have to struggle to meet our basic needs, and in fact live a life of luxury compared to most of the world, we take this comfort for granted when we worship, and since we have no major problems, we overreact to little annoyances, like the Wifi signal being weak, or the pool not being open when we want. As recent blog posts show, I have been glowing with joy over my spiritual growth these past two years, but through my self-centered behavior this past Memorial Day Weekend, God showed me I still have a lot of work to do. I cannot do anything about my immune system’s overreaction to gluten and tree pollin, but I can strive to change my mind’s overreaction to first-world problems. I cannot promise I won’t slip up again in the heat of a moment, but it is my goal to work harder in this area, and if my Jehovah’s Witness friends, or any of my bible study friends read this, please pray for me.

But finally and most importantly, I realized that by setting such ridiculous expectations for Memorial Day Weekend, I had put my ultimate hope in the wrong thing. While this life has moments of joy—for me, many moments of joy—God never intended for life to be perfect in this fallen world, even on Memorial Day weekend. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasurable moments of this life, and while it is human nature to cry at sad times like the death of a loved one even if we know we will see them again, our ultimate hope should be reserved for the Restoration. Once I had calmed down and remembered this, my mood lifted permanently the rest of the weekend. The concert was fabulous. My dad didn’t realize he had gotten front row seats, but while the sighted people were complaining that they had to strain their necks to see the stage, I loved it because I felt up close to the orchestra, almost as if I were onstage with them. After the concert, we went to a favorite restaurant of ours called Blackfinn Ameripub, where I ordered the California Naked Bird, a super flavorful turkey burger loaded with toppings in a lettuce wrap. We got home just in time to watch the National Memorial Day Concert Live. After the concert, my parents were too tired to take a walk, but I found some good music I had forgotten about and went on the treadmill. The next day, I woke up with a headache, but it went away in time for the parade. We even found a spot in a performance zone this year, meaning that instead of just getting drums which are all that plays much of the parade route, we got the full bagpipe and band performances right in front of us which was exciting. Then after the parade, Mom and Dad prepared burgers, potato salad and baked beans for lunch. So while this past Memorial Day weekend didn’t meet my bizarre expectations, once I put things into a more mature prospective, I realized that every moment this past weekend was a happy moment and in this way, it was a perfect Memorial Day Weekend after all.

The Tenth Good Thing About Snickers

Well readers, yesterday was a sad day as our beloved kitty Snickers passed away. I knew this sad day would come eventually. I just didn’t expect it to come so soon. As I mentioned in this post, the vet told us in March that her kidneys were failing, and a special diet would help temporarily, but ultimately nothing could be done to reverse the inevitable progression of kidney failure. But on the special diet, Snickers turned into a kitten again, jumping on the table and counters. She even started sticking her head in Gilbert’s food bowl while he was eating to try and steal some of his food! When Gilbert would growl at her, she would back away for a second, but then come right back! Maybe Snickers wanted to get even for the times Gilbert used to steal her food before we cleaned out a space in the basement for her to eat that Gilbert couldn’t reach. This new behavior also brought back funny memories of when Snickers was a kitten and would torment Indy who was almost twice Gilbert’s size. Nevertheless, I did start holding Snickers while Gilbert ate his food because growling is very uncharacteristic for Gilbert, so Snickers was clearly getting on his nerves, and I feared that one day, Gilbert would decide that enough was enough and bite her.

But on Friday, Snickers stopped eating, and on Saturday morning, Mom found her sitting in the sink. She wasn’t drinking the water though, just letting it flow over her. Mom dried her off, laid a blanket on her favorite easy chair in the living room, and laid her down on it. She slept there for awhile, and then came into the kitchen intending to jump onto the table, but she missed, and fell to the hard floor with a loud thump. She didn’t cry out in pain, but she didn’t feel like getting up and walking away, or trying again either. So I picked her up gently and carried her back to her easy chair, where she slept the rest of the day. Sometime Saturday night, she limped to her water dish and drank a tiny bit of water, and then Sunday morning, we found her sleeping on Gilbert’s bed on the floor. On Saturday, I told Gilbert “No!” when I was petting Snickers and he came up to the easy chair and wanted to sniff her. I didn’t think he would hurt her, but I didn’t want Snickers to feel stressed when a dog was sniffing her and she was too weak to run or swat at him like she used to.

By Sunday night when she hadn’t gotten out of bed the entire day, it became clear she wouldn’t be with us much longer, and with this realization, the sadness started to well up in me. I remembered a book from when I was a child called The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, a story about a child grieving the passing of her beloved cat. When I was a child, this book didn’t stir emotions in me as I read it because I hadn’t gone through the loss of a beloved pet. We didn’t have a cat at the time and Indy was still a rambunctious puppy. But my subconscious mind must have known I would need this book later in life because the title of this book just came to me.

I felt compelled to download this book from Bookshare and read it pre-emptively Sunday night in the hopes that the simple language of a children’s book would bring me comfort, which it has. First it has been comforting in how relatable it has been. Like the child in the story, I didn’t want to eat, write or do anything I usually enjoy. All day at work Monday, I was thinking about her, and on Monday evening when Snickers left the bed Mom created for her on the fireplace in the family room and tried to hide from us, a common behavior cats exhibit when they are about to die, I didn’t want to join my young adult bible study group I host Monday nights. All I wanted to do was stay downstairs and hold her. I tried to be an adult and not let myself cry, but Tuesday evening my resolve broke and I cried. I think no matter how old we are, every now and then we all need to return to the simple, comforting language of a book written for children to be reminded that it is natural and okay to cry over the loss of a beloved pet.

On Monday night and Tuesday night, Mom put a soft pillow inside one of Snickers’ favorite whicker laundry baskets she liked to sleep in when she was younger, which we hoped would make her feel secure in her final hours. Mom slept with her in the guest bedroom and we made sure to keep the door closed so Gilbert would not bother her. On Wednesday morning before leaving for work, I went into the guest room and pet her for what I sensed would be the last time. By the time Mom got home from driving me to work, Snickers had passed away.

I have also found comfort in this children’s book because it suggested a very healthy way to grieve the loss of a pet. In the story, the mom suggests that the child think of ten good things about Barney, which in adult language means that rather than dwelling on the sadness of the pet’s absence, we should focus on all the happy memories we had with the pet. In the story, the cat passes away on Friday and Mom tells the child they will have a funeral for the cat in the morning. The child can only think of nine things before falling asleep, but the next day when his father plants flower seeds over Barney’s grave, the child thinks of a tenth good thing about Barney. He will go back to the earth and help the flowers grow. This is such a poignant story I feel myself tearing up a bit even now as I recount it. Last night when I got home from work, Mom, Dad and I had a funeral for Snickers too. We buried her in our backyard, and Mom bought a lilac bush which we planted over her grave, so she will help flowers grow too. We each said a few words about how much love and joy Snickers brought to our lives, and although Dad wasn’t a cat person eighteen years ago, Snickers won Dad over with her charm and I swear I heard his voice crack as he remembered her. I couldn’t help crying again last night, but today I am starting to heal and focus on all the good times we had together. To that end, I have created my own list of ten happy memories of Snickers.

  1. Snickers was brave. She tormented Indy and Mojo ruthlessly despite the fact that they were big dogs who could have taken her out with one snap. In her younger days, she would hide and wait for someone to open a door so she could dart outside and a couple times once outside, she climbed way up high in a pine tree.
  2. . Snickers was smart. In 2008 when we were hosting a party, we tried to lock her in a storage room with food, water and her litter box so she wouldn’t jump on the table and cause trouble, and so that the cousins could play ping-pong in the basement. Well Snickers found a secret passage out of that room, jumping up into the rafters which went above the door of this room, jumped down when she reached the main basement and ran back upstairs to investigate the table!
  3. . She was naughty in an endearing way. We tried squirt guns to keep her off tables and counters when she was younger, but she didn’t fear the squirt gun so eventually we gave up and just made sure to wash the table religiously and lock her up with her food, water and litter box when we were expecting company. Sometimes, she would lick things on the table, but sometimes she would just sit in the middle of the table and purr as if she were laughing at us.
  4. She didn’t purr softly. She purred so loudly I could hear her purring clear across the room. She would purr when we pet her, especially behind the ears, and she would purr when we prepared her food.
  5. She would run to the door to greet people just like a dog. She wouldn’t run up and smother the visitor with kisses like a dog, but she was always there standing back a little ways sizing them up and if they sat down, she would come to them purring, but wouldn’t be shy about biting them too if the mood struck her, just to make sure they understood who was in charge at our house.
  6. When we occasionally had visitors who said they didn’t like cats, Snickers could tell who these people were too, and would work extra hard trying to charm them, trying to sit in their laps while ignoring the pleas of those who loved cats and would have loved to hold her. Toward the end of her life, Snickers had this weird affection for Dad. He loved her and enjoyed her antics, but rarely fed her and did not hold her or use baby-talk on her near as much as Mom and I had. But she started ignoring us in the evening and jumping into Dad’s lap with an adorable meow of love as soon as Dad sat down to watch television. I wonder if she could always sense that Dad wasn’t as fond of cats as the women in the house were, and she was bound and determined to win Dad over before she left us, which she did
  7. She was aware of every new appliance, piece of furniture or package that came to the house and was the first at the scene to investigate it. When I received my braille edition of Reader’s Digest, I would barely finish opening it and she would be there eager to climb in the box. Sometimes if I was lazy, I would pull one volume out of the box to start reading and when I went back for the second volume, she was sleeping on top of it. I would often find something else to read as she looked so cute in that box I didn’t have the heart to move her.
  8. She was unpredictable in an adorable way that made every moment with her interesting. One moment she would be as sweet as can be, snuggling into your arms or the blanket on your lap and purring. And then on a dime, she would haul off and bite you.
  9. She hated to be brushed. We tried brushing her a couple times but quickly learned we needed to wear body armor (long sleeves, thick gloves) as she scratched us up good. One day when she was really young, Mom, my sister and I were brushing her in the livingroom and Indy, or big german shepherd was watching on a rug nearby with what Mom and my sister described as a grin on her face. Indy was enjoying the spectacle this naughty cat was creating. Well as soon as we gave up trying to brush her and set her free, Snickers lunged straight for Indy and attacked as if to say, “I saw you laughing at me and I am not pleased!”
  10. She was active right to the end, chasing bugs, and jumping on tables and counters. In fact, I still smile when I think about Saturday. The last thing she did before she succumbed to her kidney failure was attempt to jump onto the table. Visitors would be in disbelief when I told them how old she was.

In the children’s story, Annie, the narrator’s friend who came over for the cat’s funeral, believed Barney would go to heaven, but the narrator didn’t believe there was a heaven for cats. The narrator’s parents weren’t sure either. I like to think that Snickers is in heaven, perhaps playing with Indy and Mojo. But even if pets don’t go to heaven, she will always live in my heart. Rest in peace Snickers. You were loved and even if we adopt another kitten down the road, you will always hold a special place in our hearts.

Taking My Passion to the Next Level

Fifth grade was a tough year academically for me, but when it came to my chorus experience, I would have loved to stay in fifth grade forever. But I was optimistic about the transition to middle school because in sixth grade, choir was a class, not an extracurricular activity which I thought would give it more legitimacy. In sixth grade, music was a required part of the curriculum, but students could choose to meet this requirement with band, orchestra, choir, or general music. Of course, I chose choir. What I hadn’t anticipated in my young mind however was that choir would attract students looking for something more interesting than general music, and perceived choir as an “easy” class. The choir teacher was planning to retire after my sixth grade year, and I think our class re-enforced this decision. Some students were so disruptive and made choir rehearsals so chaotic that she lost her cool a couple times and shouted at the top of her lungs “Stop talking.” Maybe this wasn’t the most professional approach to the situation, but I cannot blame her for this reaction because if I were her, I might have reacted the same way. Just as I am sure classmates who took sports seriously and loved gym class must have hated having me on their team because I am not the slightest bit athletic, I was the athlete of choir and longed to be with people who took singing more seriously. My dream actually came true temporarily that year the Wednesday after Labor Day when the teacher announced an event called Singing in Wisconsin where serious singers from all over the metro area would rehearse a set of songs, and then we would meet on a Saturday morning that November at Carroll College, rehearse the songs together all day and then give a performance that evening. I signed up for this opportunity right away. The small group of us interested in this event rehearsed these special songs after school, so while I still had to put up with my disruptive peers during the regular class, these rehearsals on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school were so peaceful and productive that they became the highlight of my week. I don’t remember all of the songs we performed that day, but I do remember this was the first time I ever sang For the Beauty of the Earth, a song I would sing a lot in the years to come and which is still one of my favorites for its simple beauty and inspiring message.

On that Saturday at Carroll College, all of the groups represented were introduced and I heard them announce the Waukesha Children’s Choir. I perked up when I heard this choir announced, not because I knew anything about them but because that was what planted the idea in my mind of how exciting it would be to sing in a choir not affiliated with school, a choir for serious singers, just like my brother’s club volleyball team. Shortly thereafter, I expressed this to the choir teacher who suggested auditioning for the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, as it was bigger and would give me all sorts of exciting opportunities, including the chance to sing with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. So on a Monday night in August before my seventh grade year, Dad took me to an office downtown where I auditioned for the Milwaukee Children’s Choir.

Although it was called an audition, I remember the director saying that no one is rejected. After all, if you didn’t care for singing, why would you audition for this kind of choir in the first place? The purpose of the audition was more about the director evaluating our voice and vocal range to determine what part we would sing. Because it was my first year with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, I was accepted into the Concert choir, which was the middle ground between the choir for really young children, and the advanced Cantorei Choir, or as the director said once when reminding us of proper posture for standing on the risers which included not fidgeting or scratching itches nervously, “you are in between the scratchers and the statures.” At first I was embarrassed because at the first rehearsal when we went around introducing ourselves, I realized I was the oldest one there, with most students being in the fourth and fifth grade, and a few students as young as third grade. But I quickly came to realize that unlike school where everything is so segregated, age difference really didn’t matter in this choir and I quickly made friends.

But despite being a choir for younger children, the director was not soft on us. I will never forget the first rehearsal when the director was teaching us the choir scale “do re mi fa so la ti do.” She wanted us to sing the scale and do hand motions to go along with it, but of course I couldn’t see the hand motions. So I practiced the advocacy my teachers always encouraged at school and raised my hand to ask the choir director to show me the hand motions I was supposed to be doing, to which she responded “that’s your homework.” I think this shocked me into silence the rest of rehearsal. That year, the choir rehearsed at a church downtown and that first year, Mom sat quietly in the back during rehearsals. This was partly due to the fact that it didn’t make sense for her to go home since rehearsals were only an hour and a half once a week. But she also just wanted to be available in case I needed anything, especially if I needed the restroom, which by evening I often did due to the medication I had to take at the time. So Mom heard this exchange between me and the choir director, and in the car on the way home, she explained that in the public school setting I was accustomed to, the teachers had to accommodate me, but in a private organization like this choir, they did not have to. This didn’t mean I couldn’t be in this choir. It just meant that I would need to handle things more on my own. So Mom showed me how to do the hand motions that week, and while my teacher’s aid would transcribe the words of the songs for the school choir into braille for me, Mom read the words of the Milwaukee Children’s Choir songs to me and I transcribed them into braille myself. At the second rehearsal, the choir director asked me a question about something we were singing and in this way caught me dozing off as I was not used to evening activities yet. But after that, I found my footing and Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals became the highlight of my week.

Disruptive behavior was extremely rare in this choir because everyone in it was serious about singing and wanted to be there. On the rare occasion someone did get carried away and misbehave, the director would march over to where they were sitting and reprimand them sternly. Even when no one was misbehaving, this director had a stern demeanor, and I remember one Saturday when Mom had to work and Dad took me to a special rehearsal, I heard him tell Mom later he couldn’t believe how stern she was with us because compared to the Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops my parents used to chaperone, cthese choir students were angels! This director actually was a lot of fun. You could tell she loved working with young people and as the year progressed, she seemed less stern to me. Maybe it was because I liked this sternness and had gotten used to it as it was refreshing compared to the chaos that often defined school rehearsals. (The Milwaukee Children’s Choir had a policy that if your school had a choral program, you were expected to participate in it as well because we could be valuable assets to the choir with the advanced training we were getting, and because they didn’t want us to develop a snobby attitude and think of ourselves as being too good for our school choir.) But I also think this director was intentionally more stern than usual at the beginning of the year to scare off any singers who weren’t going to take singing seriously, and to establish high expectations.

I didn’t get to sing a full-fledged concert with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra that year. That opportunity was reserved for the “statures.” But I did get to sing with the symphony for an educational program they put on for second graders all over the metro area. I actually remembered going to this program when I was in second grade, so it was exciting to come full-circle, knowing that quite possibly, there were future choir members sitting in that audience just as I had been five years earlier.

The following year I auditioned for and was accepted into the Cantorei choir, and this is where my passion for singing blossomed the most. The director of this choir worked for a music publishing company and thus was nationally renowned. My aunt who was a music teacher in Indiana at the time knew of her. I loved how this director made us feele grownup by giving us fancy leather folders for our music, and when it was time for rehearsals to begin, all she had to do was raise her hand and hum the C above Middle C and the room would snap to attention. Many singing dreams were realized that year, including the opportunity to perform with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. That holiday season, we collaborated with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the adult Symphony Chorus to perform Hansel and Gretel, and the Holiday Pops concert which was conducted by Doc Severinsen. In the summer following that year, I went to Italy with this choir where we had the privilege of singing at Saint Peter’s Basilica. I was always appreciative of the sacrifices my parents made for me to have these opportunities. In addition to driving me to the many rehearsals these opportunities required, I remember Mom picking up a lot of over-time shifts so that we could go to Italy. I tried to convince her to let me go by myself so she would only have to pay for one person, as traveling abroad was never a draw for her anyway. But she didn’t feel comfortable sending me alone given my special medical situation, and she wanted me to have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But it wasn’t until I was older that I found out how expensive the tuition was for each semester in this choir, and now that I am more aware of how much poverty and inequality there is right in my metro area, I have a deeper awareness of how blessed I was to have these opportunities.

The church we rehearsed in that year is still my all-time favorite rehearsal site as well. It was an old Lutheran church that had that old wood smell that I love. But what was most interesting about this site was that on the wood floor of the room where we rehearsed was a painted labyrinth. At one time I knew what the labyrinth signified, but now I forget. Anyway to protect this labyrinth, the church leadership did not want anyone wearing shoes in this room, so before rehearsal, we all took off our shoes in an entry-way on the lower level before climbing a flight of stairs to the rehearsal room. I don’t know if I ever mentioned this in past posts, but I love being barefoot. The first thing I have always done when returning home from school or work is take off my shoes, and I switch to sandals as soon as the snow melts, and wear them until the first snowflakes in fall. I would wear them in the snow too if Mom allowed me to. If I were a prairie girl living in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s time, I would not have liked the bugs coming right into the house through windows with no screens, but I would have loved being barefoot all the time! I just feel so much lighter and freer without shoes, or when I can at least wear shoes that let my toes breathe. Now that I am in an adult choir where most of the other singers are senior citizens, we are seated the entire time on a typical rehearsal night, only standing for long periods of time at the dress rehearsal before a concert, and for the performance itself. But in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, the director had us standing a lot, and I honestly think my feet hurt less after rehearsal that year than in the years that followed. But more importantly, I loved this rehearsal site because I think the room had a high ceiling because our sound echoed beautifully in this room, so I essentially got to sing in a cathedral once a week that year.

This choir also made my eighth grade year an amazing year from a social perspective as well. In elementary school, there were a few bullies in the before-school daycare I had to go to a few mornings a week from third grade through fifth grade, but overall, I had a lot of friends. In fact, since I was the only blind student in the whole school at the time, I sort of had celebrity status with even students in other grades asking me questions about being blind, and sometimes if I was walking somewhere by myself and another class was processing down the hall on their way to gym, art or music, the whole class would say hi as they walked by. I didn’t know what to make of this celebrity treatment at the time but looking back now, the teachers must have found it adorable and maybe even kind of funny. In these years, I never had a problem finding a partner when we had group assignments. But in middle school when puberty strikes, it was as if a switch flipped. I still had a couple of close friends, but mostly I was ignored. Teachers would have to assign students to work with me for group projects, and I could go whole days in a kind of silent bubble, walking from class to class quietly minding my own business but not speaking to a single peer all day. One of my close friends was in the school choir with me, and we both helped each other. She was new to the area, and because cliques were already well-established by seventh grade, I got the impression she felt ignored to, so we provided mutual companionship and moral support. She was also extremely helpful with logistical things like getting me to my spot on the risers at concert time which was a huge relief for me because the choir director was new to teaching and was not helping me as much as past choir directors had. So I have good memories of school choir in middle school too. But eighth grade in Cantorei choir was like stepping into another world. Once a week, I got to be with “my people!” I felt like a rockstar again surrounded by a happy group of friends at breaktime, and when we would take bus trips, I wasn’t the only one singing on the bus anymore! Even the boys were more mature in Cantorei choir. There was one boy in particular whom I especially enjoyed spending time with. We never officially declared ourselves a couple, maybe because we were both mature beyond our years and didn’t go for the silliness associated with this declaration. But he always came to talk to me at break times and if there was a special event, we would often sit together at lunch or on the bus and talk about religion, politics and music. Life took us in different directions and I haven’t kept in touch with him, but the time I spent talking to him in this choir was the closest I ever felt to having a boyfriend.

Perhaps because this director was nationally renowned for her work publishing music for children, I loved most of the songs she selected for us to sing. Perhaps because she came from Texas, her taste for gospel music was especially amazing. There was one song especially, Music Down in My Soul composed by Moses Hogan that was a favorite of the choir, and on concert days when this song was in the program, we raised the roof and got audiences hollering with joy. Rehearsing this song and others similar to it also filled me with joy that carried me through the week even if school was tough. My parents never had to worry about me turning to drugs or alcohol for happiness, because who needs drugs or alcohol when you can be high on song, floating down the hall between classes singing “Love in my heart! Oh yes I’ve got peace in my soul! Oh yes I’ve got joy in my heart! Joy today!” I even started a new tradition with this song. One rehearsal shortly before the spring concert when we were going to perform this song, I remember singing it and thinking that adding clapping into the refrain would be the icing on the cake of this amazing song. But this wasn’t part of the music, and there is an unwritten rule all serious choral singers know. That rule is that you don’t dare do anything to upset a choir director when concert day is near. I love and respect choir directors, but they are as a rule perfectionistic, especially the last week or two before a concert, and therefore, their fuses are very short. I feared incurring the wrath of the choir director more than I feared God. But a week after the concert, there was a final send-off rehearsal where the choir director would recognize the students who were aging out, and also give us a chance to sing the songs one more time, just for fun. This I decided would be a safe time to clap. So when we got to the refrain, I started clapping to the beat, and then a couple friends around me started clapping, then a few more, and before long, the whole choir of 100 or so singers was clapping! At first I was a little embarrassed when I asked and a friend confirmed that I had indeed instigated this, but that embarrassment didn’t last long as we were all having a blast. The choir director must have loved it too because the following year when we sang this song, the director told us we could clap for part of the refrain when the piano stops playing.

I would continue to sing in this choir my freshman year of high school as well, but unfortunately some of my best friends, including my almost boyfriend aged out of the choir as they were a year older than me, and the director quipped at the time that she did not want to teach students old enough to drive themselves to rehearsal. In addition, my freshman year, the choir rehearsals moved to a newly built Youth Art Center which most saw as a better rehearsal site, but I missed the acoustics of this old church, and the chance to rehearse barefoot. But I still had friends in the choir, and the director was still amazing so I had a blast my freshman year too.

Well I thought I could talk about my childhood choral experience in two posts, but I had so much to say that this post is already long and I haven’t even gotten to my high school experiences. So I will need another post or two. I think I ended my previous post with the director of the fifth grade chorus saying “I hope this is just the beginning for you.” I think it hit me when singing in Saint Peter’s Basilica that this teacher’s hope for me had been realized. Three years earlier, singing for parents in the school gym was a big stage, and now here I was singing in the most famous and beautiful church in the world. And I was still young, with many more opportunities and years of singing ahead of me.

Convicted: The Mother’s Day I Threw the Book At Mom

I know I said I was going to write two posts about choir, but the second post is not finished yet, and with today being Mother’s Day, I felt compelled to re-post an essay I wrote on Medium for a contest in 2014. I heard about this site from a Facebook friend and then shortly thereafter, I saw an article in Reader’s Digest that was originally published on this site, so I decided to give it a try. I decided I much preferred writing here, and my Medium posts didn’t seem to get much traffic. I am not going to re-post the other essays I wrote there, but you are welcome to read them here. But below is my favorite of the essays I wrote on Medium, and a perfect one for Mother’s Day. The theme of the contest that week was “I shouldn’t have written that.” Enjoy!

The year I was in third grade was a difficult year for my mother. She had started a new job in October that required her to work rotating shifts, one week of days and one week of nights. Just when she had adjusted to one shift, it was time to switch again so she was always tired. But my mother never complained. Despite being exhausted, she plugged right on, cooking dinner every night, never missing my older siblings’ school activities and still finding time to play with me. But the week leading up to Mother’s Day, my mother caught a nasty cold that normally might not have stopped her, but on top of day-night rotation, almost knocked her down. She did the household stuff she had to do, but was too tired to play. “I’m really tired right now. I promise I’ll play with you later,” she had said every day that week as she took another sip of tea and continued watching some boring grown-up TV show.

This disappointment was all forgotten, I thought when toward the end of the week, the teacher announced that we were all going to make special picture books to give to our mothers for Mother’s Day. I loved my mother dearly and despite how much I probably drove her crazy whining for her to stop watching those boring grown-up shows and play with me, I knew she loved me too. I couldn’t wait to tell her through this book how much I loved her and how much she meant to me. The teacher gave us prompts to fill in for each page of the book like “my mother enjoys ____,” or “if I could give my mother anything in the world, I would give her ____.” The teacher’s aid helped me write my messages in both print and braille, and helped me make line drawings with puffy paint. Then the books were sent to an office in the school called the publishing center where they were given beautiful glossy covers.

I was so giddy with excitement over giving my mother this beautiful book I knew she would treasure forever that I couldn’t stand waiting any longer than Saturday night to present it. I ran up to her the way little kids do and threw it in to her hands and said “Happy Mother’s Day,” in a voice quivering with eager anticipation. As I expected, she gushed over the beautiful book when she peeled back the wrapping paper, but I didn’t expect what happened next. With all my siblings around the table, she opened it up and started reading, and laughing, hysterically. “What’s so funny?” I asked, a bit confused. It turned out that without even realizing it, I had written a book that was really more of an indictment. “My mother enjoys drinking tea and watching TV on the couch.” (picture of a tea cup) “My mother looks prettiest in her soft silk nightgown.” (picture of a nightgown) “If I could give my mother anything in the world, I would give her a cottage and a boat on a lake so she can relax.” (picture of a boat on a peaceful lake) I forget what the other prompts were, but basically every page made reference to how lazy I thought she had been lately.

I apologized repeatedly for that book over the years as I matured and came to have a better appreciation of how hard she worked and how selflessly she tended to us. “I could throw it on the next bonfire I attend,” I said once. “Don’t you dare,” she said, “I love it. It is a cute book I will treasure forever. I just laughed because all of your teachers who helped you with it probably think I am a lazy bum, and because I had been convicted.” Perhaps the lesson my third grade teacher had intended was for us to practice our writing while also learning about the joy that comes from a hand-made gift a mother will treasure forever. But the lesson I came away with that I still keep in mind today in everything I write is that the subconscious mind is a powerful thing.

The Beginning of My Passion for Singing

This past Saturday, I sang in my final choir concert of the season. It was a wonderful concert with a diverse set of music that included a couple songs in latin, German and French, but the theme of the concert was Girls Night Out because all of the songs were written by female composers. After this concert, it occurred to me that while I have briefly mentioned my love of singing in posts about other topics, considering how passionate I am about this art form, I have not given it the attention it deserves on this blog. So for this post, I want to share how my passion for singing began, and then in the next post, I will talk about the joys and challenges of choir as I got older.

My mom told me that before I could even talk, I was singing. She recalls listening to a Christmas album when I was about a year and a half, and she noticed that when the singer sang “Walkin’ in a winter wonderland,” I was “singing” too. “Webah wabah webah wabah woo!” I sang emphatically. I didn’t understand the words yet, but I knew the melody. That was just the beginning of what would become a lifelong passion. Right from kindergarten, music class was my favorite class. My first concert of sorts was a kindergarten Christmas program. The theme was “Christmas in the Forest.” Unfortunately I don’t remember much about the concert itself because I feel like I was coming down with a bad cold that day. But I remember we were all asked to bring teddie bears that we held for one of the songs, and the rehearsals leading up to the concert were an absolute blast! The one song that has stuck in my memory from that concert that I still laugh about today was “we fish you a hairy chris-moose and a hippo new year.” One of my many favorite Christmas songs today is a song from the country music band Alabama called Thistlehair the Christmas Bear because it reminds me of those kindergarten Christmas songs from a time of magic and innocence.

Outside of music class, I was singing all the time: on the bus to and from school, walking down the hall at school, and around the house. But at that time, my dream was to sing in the school chorus. Unfortunately, while band and orchestra were open to third, fourth and fifth graders, the chorus was only open to fifth graders. That was when I first realized the truth of that adage that life is not fair! Twice a year, once just before Christmas, and again toward the end of May, the whole school would assemble in the gym for a concert. I remember sitting in the bleachers thinking how loud and obnoxious the band pieces were, and during the orchestra pieces, I would get bored and the teacher’s aid who worked with me would have to reprimand me for fidgeting. Since then, I have come to appreciate the fun nature of band pieces, and the beauty of orchestral pieces. But when the chorus came onstage, I was thrilled and mesmerized. To hear so many kids singing and sometimes clapping in unison sounded like heaven on earth, and I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to join this party onstage. Fifth grade seemed like an eternity away, but at last that wonderful year arrived and when the music teacher asked who wanted permission slips to join the chorus, my hand was the first to shoot up. I received this permission slip on a Friday and while most other permission slips would not have been signed until Sunday night, if I even remembered to give them to Mom or Dad then, I remember handing the permission slip to Mom Friday night, and I made sure to turn it in Monday.

In my elementary school, the chorus was considered an extracurricular activity, so rehearsals took place Tuesdays and Thursdays during the second half of lunch in lieu of recess. This was both a blessing and a curse for me. It was a blessing because I was one of those rare kids that hated recess. If I could have spent recess doing a craft or playing a board game with a friend indoors, or even reading in a quiet corner outside, I would have enjoyed recess. But because teachers said I needed exercise, I was forced to go down slides, climb jungle gyms and play stupid running games with shrieking classmates during this supposedly free time. So with chorus, I finally had a valid excuse to get out of recess, and unlike first and second grade when there were two other recess times during the day, and third and fourth grade when there was an afternoon recess, lunch recess was the only one in fifth grade! But it was a curse because I am a slow eater. When I was younger, the classroom teacher and aid made a deal with me that if I could get outside for at least five minutes of the 20 minute lunch recess for a certain number of days—I think it might have been two weeks, I could have an afternoon recess indoors doing a quieter activity with a like-minded friend. But now that chorus, not recess was at stake in fifth grade, I had to learn to eat faster. It was rough at first. I was late to rehearsal the first few times, and a lot of food probably got wasted, but I wasn’t going to let my slow eating stand in the way of my dream of singing in the chorus.

Singing in this chorus was everything I had dreamed it would be. I don’t recall there being any disruptive behavior during chorus rehearsals like there often was during music class, perhaps since recess had to be sacrificed to sing in the chorus, a sacrifice which not every fifth grader was willing to make, only students who really wanted to sing as much as me participated in the chorus and because they wanted to be there, they behaved well. And that first experience singing in front of the whole school and then again for parents later that evening was magical and I still remember smiling ear-to-ear the entire time. That first concert, we sang a song about how children all over the world say hello, My Christmas Tree from the movie Home Alone, and everyone’s favorite, The Everlasting Fruit Cake. For this song, I think there was a special set brought onto the stage and a fake fruit cake. At the end of the song, the principal who loved to be silly and have fun, rang a doorbell and pretended to be a delivery man delivering the fruit cake again, to which we all pretended to groan “not again!” The audience loved this performance, and so did we. A couple weeks later, we got to sing our pieces at a local mall to get shoppers in the Christmas spirit, and the way I anticipated and talked about this trip for weeks, you would have thought I was going to Carnegie Hall. In the spring, we sang a song about Albert Einstein that involved choreography and snapping your fingers, the classic Oldie Doo Wah Diddy Diddy and I had a solo in the song “Colors of the Wind, which is still one of my favorite Disney songs. “The rainstorm and the river are my brothers. The heron and the otter are my friends. And we are all connected to each other, in a circle, in a hoop that never ends.”

The aid that saw me light up when the chorus came onstage worked with me from first grade through fourth grade, but in fifth grade, she was assigned to a younger student. But I got to see her after the concert and she told me she had tears in her eyes when she saw me onstage with the chorus because she remembered how much I longed for that opportunity all those years. The chorus director didn’t spend a lot of one-on-one time with me, but she was a sweet person with a natural passion for working with kids, and she saw my passion too and I will never forget when she said “I hope this chorus is just the beginning for you.”

It was just the beginning for me. I would sing all my years in school and be blessed with many unforgettable opportunities which I will talk about in the next post. I am involved in an adult choir now and hope to sing all my life. Although the music is more challenging now, and sometimes after a long day the last thing I want to do is attend a grueling rehearsal, deep down, I still have the same passion for choir that I had as a child all those years ago, a passion that comes alive again every time I take the stage as I did last Saturday and experience a slice of heaven on earth once again.

Senior Citizens of the Pet Variety

In the five-year hiatus I took from blogging, I have had so many spiritual, political and career insights that I was itching to write about, and there is still more I would like to write about. But I want to take a break from these posts to reflect on Gilbert who is still my guide dog, and Snickers my kitty who have not gotten the attention they deserve in my blog.

With both Gilbert and Snickers, their senior citizen status snuck up on me, as I bet it does for every loving pet owner. I suppose it is a similar feeling to the feeling parents describe when they will say that it seems as though their children were just babies yesterday as they send them off to college. But with pets, the sad difference is that they are not growing up and embarking on an exciting new journey, but are growing old and soon will no longer be with us, at least not in this life. In the amazing book I read about the Restoration, Eldredge says that perhaps our beloved pets will run to greet us. I have also read things that say animals don’t have souls in the same way humans do because humans were specially created in God’s image, so our departed pets don’t go to heaven. This is an intriguing topic I would love to explore further, but whether God re-unites us with our departed pets or not, we will not be disappointed because we will always have our happy memories of them from this life, and maybe the experiences we get to have with pets in this life are just a small taste, a foreshadowing, of the even more magical memories we will make with animals in the Restoration, when we will form bonds with wolves, bears and lions, animals that were too dangerous to bond with here. But I digress. Gilbert and Snickers are both still alive and well, and seem to be enjoying their golden years. I am enjoying them in their golden years too.

In 2014 when I was getting my paralegal certificate at Milwaukee Area Technical College, I had class with a non-traditional student who worked at a pet store. One day after class, she told me she thought Gilbert had the beginnings of arthritis as he seemed to walk stiffly. At that time, he had just turned eight. She suggested I talk to the vet about putting him on glucosamine supplements. I did notice that Gilbert was moving a little slower and taking a little longer to get up, but he still enjoyed chasing the cat, and had no problem with long walks or jumping in and out of the car. So I decided not to make a special trip to the vet but just wait for his regular annual check-up and bring this up with the vet at that time. Sure enough at his appointment the following July, the vet watched him walk and agreed that he was indeed showing signs of arthritis. The vet suggested giving him TriCox chewable supplements that would help his joints, and also gave me Carprofen that I could give him if he seemed to be in a lot of pain or if he had exerted himself more than usual. With that we carried on with our lives. Just as we had done at Carroll University, Gilbert and I both met the requirements of the Paralegal program, and Gilbert helped me make many friends along the way. In April 2015, we joined the ranks of the employed, but for the first time in his life, Gilbert had to start taking sick days.

One day last winter, about an hour after Mom dropped us off at work, Gilbert shifted on his dog bed under my desk, and then started whimpering in a way I had never heard before. Hearing my buddy who is usually so happy whimper like that sent me into a bit of a panic, and not thinking clearly, I jumped up and tried to rush him outside. Fortunately, my boss who loves dogs and sits near me was there and calmed me down. She said Gilbert didn’t need to go out but looked as though he was in pain, and said he needed to go home. So I called my mom while my boss and I took turns consoling Gilbert for the half an hour or so it took for Mom to come back. When Mom got there, I think my boss helped Mom lift Gilbert into the van, and later that day, the boss asked me to call Mom to see how Gilbert was doing. He had ran through a deep pile of snow that morning while doing his business, something he used to do without a problem but now caused his arthritis to flare up. After a couple days of rest, tri-cox and Carprofen, he returned to work but had another flare-up a couple months later. This time, he had to stay home for several weeks because the vet prescribed a temporary regimen of Prednisone, Gabapentin and Tramadol. Just like with a human employee, we didn’t think it was wise for Gilbert to go to work impaired, and the prednisone caused him to need to pee a lot more often which would have been too much of a disruption. But then, just as Gilbert was feeling better, my mom had surgery which left her unable to drive for 3 months. Dad drove me to work on the way to his work, but because he was using a company car, he didn’t want Gilbert to ride along. So Gilbert did not come back to work with me until July. If my job were in one of those old government buildings with long, twisty-turny hallways, not having Gilbert would have been a huge hardship in terms of orientation and mobility, but fortunately the office where I work is small and extremely cane-friendly with narrow, straight-shot hallways. But I didn’t realize until he wasn’t with me how much I would miss just his presence by my side. My co-workers missed him too. But I think Gilbert missed going to work most of all because when I would come home from work, my mom would inform me of new, naughty habits like sneaking into Dad’s home office and eating paperwork he left on the floor. I have heard from owners of other retired guide dogs that this behavior is common as they are upset about suddenly being left home and separated from their owners all day. Some handlers even have to find new homes for their retired guide dogs for this reason. But when Gilbert exhibited this behavior, I decided that he didn’t need to officially retire. I probably would have had to retire him by now if I worked in a big city with a long route to a large office building. But since I live with my parents who drive me to work, and my office is small, he is still able and eager to go to work with me at eleven and a half years old.

When he did go back to work, I bought him a ramp to climb in and out of the van since the vet recommended that he not do too much jumping at his age. Occasionally he will have flare-ups where I keep him home because he seems like he might be in pain, and in January, he came down with a sudden urinary tract infection. But he goes to work with me most days, tail wagging. I like to imagine that if he were human, he would be that sweet old man who thought he would enjoy retirement after a long successful career, but found that he was bored and missed the routine of going to work, and the social interaction of getting out and being with people. So he took an easy job that allowed him to work at his own pace. He always has a smile when he comes to work, and his positive attitude makes everyone’s day a little brighter.

A couple years ago, my parents and I noticed that Snickers seemed to be meowing more and sleeping a little more, but still found the energy to jump onto the table and counters and make mischief too, so we weren’t overly concerned. Then a few months ago, Mom noticed that she was peeing a lot more and drinking a lot more water, so on March 15, Mom and I took her to the vet. After running some tests, the vet determined that Snickers’ kidney function was deteriorating. Other than a fluid administration procedure which Mom and I thought Snickers wouldn’t want to be put through, there was really nothing that could be done to reverse her condition. The vet was extremely compassionate, and pointed out that although Snickers’ exact date of birth is unknown since she came from the humane society, we adopted her as a kitten in 2000, so she was around eighteen years old, which is about 95 in cat years! The vet basically told us that at this point, we should focus on keeping her comfortable. So with heavy hearts, we brought her home, and the first thing I did when we got home was text the sad prognosis to my sister. The summer I was ten years old and she was sixteen, we forged a special sisterly bond as we talked Mom and Dad into adopting a cat, and spent several summer afternoons at humane societies meeting kittens. She asked if the vet indicated how much longer Snickers might live, and I said Mom and I didn’t want to think about that yet so we didn’t even ask. We would just do what we could to keep her comfortable and cherish every moment with her.

The vet sent us home with samples of a prescription renal friendly cat food diet to see if she would eat it. We were not sure if she would eat it because she has been a very picky eater in the past, but the vet said if she wouldn’t eat it, we could just bring it back for a refund. To our surprise and relief however, when we started feeding her this new food, she gobbled it right up! And after just a few weeks on this food, we could tell she felt a lot better. Her water consumption and urination returned to normal, but most incredibly, she almost acts like a kitten again, causing more trouble than she has in awhile. We must either drink from water bottles or cups with lids, or make sure we don’t leave glasses of water unattended, or she will jump onto the table and help herself to our water despite having a giant bowl of water available to her and Gilbert in the kitchen. She has also taken to licking our plates after we leave the table. Just the other day, Mom was making scrambled eggs for breakfast. She had cracked the eggs into a bowl and whisked them with a fork, and then turned her back for just a second to do something before pouring the eggs into the skillet. In that short time, Snickers had snuck onto the counter and was lapping up the raw egg from the bowl! When this behavior started, we increased her food from one can to two cans a day thinking that with her improved health, her appetite was getting better. Obesity was never a concern for Snickers as she has always been slim. She is a very active cat who can jump from the floor to the top of the refrigerator, or from the counter directly to the table. In the summer, she also enjoys chasing birds and bugs from window to window. But on March 15 when she was weighed at the vet, we were shocked to find out she only weighed 5.3 pounds. But her food mischief didn’t stop when we increased her food, so I like to speculate that either she is that sassy, noncompliant patient who craves what the doctor says she shouldn’t have—in her case, protein—or maybe this mischief is just her way of saying “don’t write me off just yet. I may be 95 years old, but I’ve still got fight left in me.” If she were human, I like to imagine she would be the spry old lady who asks her family to take her skydiving for her 100th birthday, and if some naïve person tried to snatch her purse or something assuming she was an easy target because she was so old, she would punch them in the nose and snatch her purse right back! (On March 15, she hissed at the vet, a sound I hadn’t heard since Mojo used to pick on her.)

About six months after our beloved german shepherd Indy passed away in 2002, my sister and I missed having a dog in the house so much that Mom relented and we went to visit dogs at the humane society. At the time, Mom saw a sweet, 10-year-old beagle that she wanted us to consider, but at the time, I was vehemently opposed to adopting a senior pet. I am still not entirely sure how I feel about adopting a senior pet. What if we brought home a senior pet that would only live a short time, and then we would be right back where we started, grieving and longing for a dog again? If the dog had a lifetime of traumatic experiences, or even if he lived with a loving family for many years but that family could no longer care for him, would he ever really bond with us before he passed away? But I wish I would have been more open-minded and given a senior dog a chance. The puppy we ended up adopting had behavioral issues we were not equipped to handle and we determined it would be best to take him back to the humane society where hopefully, he would find a more suitable home and live a happy life. But also, now that Gilbert and Snickers are seniors, I am finding that I love and appreciate them in a whole new way. I love how their demeanors are more laid-back than when they were young, in that they both sleep more and move a little slower, but they still get into mischief sometimes, as if they are both reminding us that while they may move a little slower, they are still the same creatures they have always been. In addition, because they are only capable of living in the moment, they don’t overthink things like death the way humans often do, and thus they are always cheerful, just living in the moment and not worrying about the future. I know that eventually, the sad reality is that they will no longer be with us, but I am taking a lesson from them and striving not to think about this eventuality, but live in the moment myself because they are still here today. And in forty years or so when I reach senior citizen status myself, I hope I will live my life this way as well.