arts

Taste of Hope

R-20100106-0003.jpg  Hope

I certainly received it—a taste of hope—at The Ruin last weekend. The Ruin is a wondrously made outdoor environment built by Gabe and Sarah Acrich at their home in the Sierra foothills. Envision a very large living room, made of rock walls, minus the ceiling and fourth wall, so the space is open to the sky and fields. Now imagine that the walls slope downward, lined with tall glass votive holders, and pierced with niches, so the perimeter is dotted with candle light. Within this powerfully moving space, Sarah staged a play set in a Nazi concentration camp: Taste of Hope: A Play in Three Courses.

Hope and concentration camps might seem mutually exclusive. But the profound territory that this play explores is how hope was kept alive in a hopeless situation.

The Acrich’s have a personal connection to the Holocaust; Gabe’s grandfather survived Mauthjausen. When Sarah read In Memory’s Kitchen, A Legacy From the Women of Terezin, a nonfiction book based on recipes secretly collected in a Czech concentration camp, she was immediately inspired to work with that material, family material, and other Holocaust stories to create a play affirming the faith, strength, love, and courage of the women in the camps.

Sarah is a woman of extraordinary vision, creativity and energy. Not only did she write the play, create The Ruin, recruit talented actors and musicians (drawn from friends, students and family), she also cooked latkes, matzo ball soup, carmels and honey cake—recipes which the women discussed fervently in the camp. After each act, the audience was served a hearty taste of these dishes, which were now soaked in meaning, significance and wonder.

I was seated next to a Jewish woman. Her husband did not attend; Holocaust events are too raw for him. She, however, was delighted with the play, and during each course shared with me how she had learned to cook that dish, family variations in recipes, and memories of the holidays. I was thus privileged to experience the continuity that the women in the camp desperately longed for and dedicated themselves to insuring.  

The play worked with the theme of continuity by having three areas always present on stage: a modern kitchen, with a contemporary mother and daughter cooking and occasionally  talking; a kitchen from the pre-war era with a grandmother instructing a granddaughter; and the main focus of the bunks, where four starving women prisoners engaged in intimate dialogue.  I would have found the concentration camp conversations almost too excruciating to bear, if not for the silent testimony of the past kitchen anchored in tradition and the modern kitchen witnessing  to ongoing life.  In this way, the play’s structure beautifully gave us a paradigm of time’s effect on suffering, evil, and healing.

In a further amplification of the themes of food, community, and hope, each performance was a fundraiser. There was no admission fee; all donations received went to hunger-relief organizations.  The performance I attended was an Empty Bowl Project in support of the Gathering Inn, a private nonprofit serving the county’s homeless. 

After the play, audience members lingered in the ruin, licking honey cake and carmels from our fingers. A slender moon hung overhead.  “Puts things in perspective,” someone said. “Made me think about hope,” another affirmed. And then there was mostly the crunch of gravel as we made our way down the driveway, our flashlights flickering in the dark.

The sketch above is Giacomo Cavedone’s Clasped Hands, 1612, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

The photograph was taken during a performance.


 

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America Sings

dancingrousseaupaintingsldr.jpgAmerica Sings was the title of a concert presented by the Colla Voce Chamber Singers last weekend. It was an ambitious undertaking—to give voice to an entire country in 90 minutes.  I was astonished by the depth, beauty, and diversity of the program.

A Viet Nam veteran’s foxhole prayer, Borrowed Time, was the centerpiece. Before the concert began, the director asked veterans to stand. Around 25 men and one woman rose. The audience of 300 broke into spontaneous applause. The soldier-poet, Brennan Toohey, was introduced, as well as the composer, William Brusick, who’d flown in from Texas.

I felt like a wet dishrag by the time the piece was over. The intense, honest, direct  words of the soldier combined with the haunting modern composition was devastating—in the best way.  And my catharsis was shared. Everyone in the row had tears sliding down their cheeks.  

We’d been asked to hold our applause, and there was total silence as the choir segued into an introspective Alleluia, while audience members who’d lost loved ones lit candles.  Randall Thompson’s Alleluia, composed during World War 2, served as benediction and release.

Although the emotional gravitas of the concert centered on sacrifice and death, the concert as a whole provided a huge range of moods and experiences.  It opened with clear and beautiful Native American flute music, romped through Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and included jazz standards that the audience was invited to dance to.

Perhaps the thing I admired most about the concert was its commitment to audience participation. At every Colla Voce concert there’s a brief audience sing along, but for America Sings, we belted out the first stanzas of Down in the Valley, Home on the Range, I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, and Oh! Susanna. The rafters in the room rocked with song.  The candles around the room blazed with light. Couples danced happily to As Time Goes By.

Janine Dexter, Colla Voce’s founder and artistic director (and, truth be told, my friend) is passionately dedicated to music as an agent of personal transformation.  Colla Voce’s tagline is “creating opportunities for engagement in the arts—for all ages.” In addition to the chamber singers, Colla Voce has a children’s chorus, family choir, a singing program for adults with neurological impairments, and music docent programs in elementary schools.  Very shortly they’re adding a senior choir, a choir for developmentally disabled adults, and jazz singing for young adults.

Colla Voce, and Janine, are making a difference in many lives.  And they’re having fun while they’re at it.


 

 The image above is A Centennial of Independence, Henri Rousseau, courtesy of the Getty Museum’s Open Content program.

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A Persistent Joy

lemonsbowl.jpg

My husband and I just spent the night with friends at their Forest Service Cabin near Kyburz, California. It’s a beautiful, rustic place, on the edge of the South Fork of the American River, which was in full voice. We were there for Alan’s 60th birthday, which he’s celebrating by spending 60 days at the cabin.

Alan is also a hand builder of amazing clay vessels, and he laid out an assortment of pots for his visiting friends to choose from. We brought home a deeply contoured, cobalt blue, straight-sided bowl, which I filled with lemons.

I met Alan 35 years ago, at a dark and confusing time, just after I flung myself out of law school, not knowing what would come next. Alan hired me as a paralegal, and we worked together until my husband and I moved to the country, 5 years later. By then we had formed a deep friendship. It was not the typical work relationship, if there is such a thing. But Alan is an unusual person—a superb professional, a playful artist, and a grounded, practical man.

After we established our working relationship, we moved into deeper territory, exploring our mutual love of art. On lunch breaks, we’d wander over to the art museum on Van Ness. I don’t remember who thought of it first, but we soon developed a game. In a gallery, one of us would keep eyes shut, while the other kept eyes open and described a painting. The speaker strove to convey the essence of the painting: its colors, mood, textures, composition—everything but the obvious narrative; i.e you could not say, “It’s a windmill.” Then the other would open eyes and try to find the painting. It was an exhilarating game, both as listener and as speaker. Try it some time.

Once we held a talent show, nominally in honor of everyone’s birthday. We remembered the event with great delight last weekend, more than 30 years after it had taken place. The talent show was held at Alan’s house. The talent he offered to us was cooking, and he made a feast. I recited poetry I’d written. Alan’s devoted secretary (Yep, we called her a secretary back then) taught us snazzy tap dancing moves. The receptionist told jokes, and her husband, a graduate of an art school, brought an inflatable sculpture, which was met with gasps of surprise and delight. My husband showed slides of his geological adventures in the Arctic. I’m sure we all drank plenty, but the real inebriant was joy—a joy that has persisted.

You can see some of Alan’s ceramics here.

See The World As Garden, a poem I wrote 15 years ago celebrating my friendship with Alan.


 

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Life From Death

Recently I encountered Kate Munger at a conference. Kate founded the Threshold Choir, which sings at bedsides for the dying.  I told Kate about about a life-changing experience with the choir.

It began in tragedy, when a young man drove into a tree, and 3 passengers were killed, including his brother.

This tragedy rocked our small community. So much death. So much loss of life, of youth. And the fate of the driver, who agonized in jail, completely bereft, perplexed us all. Three lives had been lost. Was a fourth life, that of the driver, to be lost as well?

The driver’s mother sang in the local Threshold Choir. His father sang in a performing choir.  The parents of one of the deceased sang in the same performing choir. The four parents had volunteered at a local school; they’d sung together; they’d been friends. How were they to encounter each other now?

Song was part of the answer.

Several weeks after the crash, mutual friends invited the couples to come to their home for their first face to face meeting after the tragedy. The driver’s mother asked the Threshold Choir to come and surround them with song. The choir’s music is spiritual but not explicitly religious and sung without accompaniment. The music is lullaby-like, archetypal in its evocation of love.

I was one of the four or five singers who gathered at the bottom of the driveway that Sunday afternoon. We rehearsed a few songs quietly. At the appointed time, we started up the driveway, singing Ubi Caritas, our voices blending in a soothing chant. We opened the back door, still singing, and filed slowly through the kitchen, into the living room. One couple sat on a couch under the window. The other couple sat on chairs opposite.  The hosts were in between.

We never stopped singing, moving seamlessly from one harmony to the next, creating a surround of song. The music filled the space, weaving a connection. The parents sat with eyes closed. Tears ran down their faces. Their hands reached out for each other.

We sang for about ten minutes, then walked out and continued singing all the way down the driveway. We didn’t talk much once we reached our cars. I was overwhelmed by the courage of the parents and their decision to work towards forgiveness and healing.

This took place several years ago.  Last December, at the performing choir’s annual concert, I saw all four parents embrace. The young driver was miraculously given a merciful sentence, in large part due to the request of all the parents of the deceased.  He now works with high school students, sharing his story as part of recovery programs and prevention efforts.  Life has come from death. I know of nothing more inspirational.


 

Lilies, Eugene Atget, 1916-19, courtesy of the Getty Museum

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