Happy Easter! Happy spring!

“In your Easter bonnet

With all the frills upon it…”

Anybody remember that song?

I miss church bells! When I moved to California, I noticed the absence. And on a day like Easter, it’s particularly noticeable.

I grew up in a European neighborhood of New York City called Jackson Heights, which has been called “the most diverse neighborhood in the country” by the NYTimes. It has always been diverse, although the demographics change.

Holidays there back then had a European character to them. Our family was from “the old country,” Poland, but on our block, every household celebrated holidays in different fashions. But whether a family was Polish, Slovak, German, Greek, eastern-European Jewish, whatever, decorations adorned doorways and windows, lights were lit, and all holidays were a noisy, wonderful, magical time. And the music of church bells played a large role in those celebrations.

Have you ever rung a church bell? One of the monstrous big ones that live high up in the belfry? You pull with all your might on the rope that’s as thick as your arm, and the whole church shudders before the vibration of the bell takes over. As the heavy bell begins to swing, you rise high up into the air, scared, holding on, wondering whether you should let go — but before you can decide, it swings back the other way and you touch the floor again…and then it begins to swing back and up you go again….

Whether you believed in the religious significance of Easter or not, the church offered enough pageantry and symbolism to make the season unforgettable. Statues, symbols, all depictions in the church were draped in purple cloth — the color of mourning — from Good Friday until Easter Sunday. No one could play music. I wasn’t allowed to play my piano!

Did you ever wonder why the Easter Rabbit delivers eggs? When’s the last time you saw a rabbit lay an egg?

In Germanic legend, the goddess Eastre / Oestre / Austra / Ostara (she had lots of different names in different places) found a wounded bird in the forest, and to save its life, she changed it into a hare (rabbit). But it retained some of its bird-like qualities, and out of gratitude, each year it laid an egg for Eastre, the goddess.

So the baskets of food that everyone took across the street to the Polish church to be blessed for Easter always contained eggs, and ham, butter, bread, some salt. Each food represented something. The old folks from the ‘old country’ all had tales of what each food represented in their village, what they called it, who used to make it, out of what, who used to prepare it and how, where the baskets came from…. But one of the casualties of WWII was that no one from ‘the old country’ wanted to be considered different, or identifiable. Everyone wanted to be American. And the old ways were lost.

So the kids — my generation — knew only that the old folks carried baskets across the street, and the priest blessed them. So much more than just cultural folklore was lost! — but that’s what happens when people move to another place.

Even seasonal Easter, or spring, is no big deal in a place like California, where I live now. Back in New York, I used to get so sick of shivering, of being unable to feel my fingers or toes, of being wet and freezing outside and dry and freezing inside! So sick of winter!

Easter there was truly symbolic, as it must have been in Europe where it began millennia ago. It was the oh-so-long-awaited warmth, the throwing off of the woolens and heavy protection against ice, snow, freezing winds.

Here, it’s all about chocolate and candy and flowers. And church, if your family still goes.

How much of Easter is religious and how much is seasonal? Or cultural?

It’s been a seasonal holiday for thousands of years. The name Easter comes from ancient cultures in the mid-east (Ishtar) and northern Europe. The symbol of the rabbit delivering eggs is from ancient Germanic peoples, before there was a country called Germany. The symbol of the egg has probably always been a symbol of re-birth and renewal, as long as there have been people, and eggs. And people have decorated, carved and colored those symbolic eggs all over Europe and the mid-east for thousands of years.

So whatever your take on this season of renewal, I hope this spring is a time of good new things for you!

Happy Easter! Happy spring!

Going abroad with (little) kids

When I was young, taking small children abroad was practically unheard-of. Nowadays, everybody and his uncle is writing about taking the tikes to Timbuktu. When mine were little, so were my best friend’s, in France. So off we went when mine were almost-4 and almost-6, just the three of us, for a few weeks in France and England to get acquainted.

The first test came even before we took off; a 5-hour delay at San Francisco Airport — announced after we were dropped off, of course. Fortunately, there’s almost nothing to climb on, in an airport, just glass walls and plastic chairs. And an endless array of luggage conveyor belts, many of which were in constant motion — as was my son.

If you’ve been to Paris, you know that the French frown on walking on the huge lawns in the parks. All that beautiful, manicured grass…unusable! Just for looking at. Unfortunately, the oldest, most climbable trees sit out in the middle of those lawns.

So any time I heard a police whistle, I’d cringe. I knew who they were shouting at. Fortunately, my French is fluent, and I’d shrug a very apologetic Gallic shrug, shake my head and say something about “Kids!” in French. They never cited us.

Version 2

Boundless physical energy drives both my kids — but their little legs were shorter than mine. So we walked mile after fascinating mile every day, until everyone was ready to fall into bed and stay there all night.

That’s really the key to traveling with kids successfully. Kids and dogs are alike in that; as the old axiom goes, ‘a tired dog is a happy dog.’ Same for kids — especially very athletic ones!

So we visited every playground we passed (and stayed until the other mothers got upset with my son’s climbing antics). We walked miles of subway tunnels and staircases.

And, of course, Alex being who he is, that is, someone who can — and must — climb everything, I have lots of stories about the unforgettable moments, the ones I’ll never be able to erase from my memory, no matter how hard I try! Someday I’ll put those all together for you to enjoy (maybe ‘enjoy’ is not quite the word!).

But we survived — and had a blast!

If you’re curious how to survive an 8-week-long trip abroad alone with little kids, send Version 2me your questions, and I’ll write about that later. I have piles of tips!


How rock climbing and conducting an orchestra are similar

Does your city have a classical music radio station? Do you ever listen to it? Do you ever wonder what “classical” really means? (Probably not what you think!)

Classical music has always been part of my life — making it, as well as listening to it. When I was a little kid, back in New York City, the first time I saw and heard a live orchestra, I dreamed of someday conducting one myself!

Not many people with that dream ever get the opportunity. So when we moved to West Sacramento and I discovered that for any cultural experiences one had to cross the river into Sacramento, I realized that was my chance of a lifetime!

I advertised everywhere I could (with no budget, but with encouragement from the West Sac government offices), and little by little, amateur musicians from all over the region came out to help form our ragtag group: the West Sacramento Community Orchestra.

Organizing and running an orchestra is a feat of endurance, a more-than-full-time job. I didn’t know it was impossible for one person to do it all — so I just did it all. I had no experience, no guidance, only a burning desire to do this.

I had watched conductors, on TV and in person, all my life.  I had a vague idea of what their job consisted of, at least in public, but not what led up to that public moment. So I set out to learn. My father-in-law had played the flute with the Sacramento Symphony, decades prior, and he helped me figure out what I needed to do, and especially, what I needed to learn.

And boy, did I learn! How to read an orchestral score (the very complex music the conductor reads as the orchestra plays). Where to seat the musicians. How many of each instrument we would need, and what to do if we didn’t have them. How to conduct them, so they could learn the music and produce an integral, symphonic (“playing together”) sound. How to promote our orchestra, advertise, solicit players, find places to practice and perform. I did the work of several people, while learning the fine art of conducting.

Oh, and let’s not forget — how to ensure that all of those musicians (artists, all!) manage to get along and play well together.

It was an overwhelming work load. The first few months passed in a blur, as I cared for two very small children, in a new house in a new neighborhood, and taught college classes in the evenings. But then, it arrived — our first concert! In public!

Our first concert venue was a community center in West Sacramento. It had a wonderfully large area in front, big enough for the whole orchestra of about 25 musicians, plus instruments. Percussion. Piano. The whole bit — a real symphonic orchestra.

And then I discovered the similarity between conducting and rock climbing.

I wasn’t a climber then. My son was four years old, my daughter six. Now, though, I can recognize the experience for what it was: fear.

Now, as a climber, I know fear, and know that I can stubborn it out, talk it down, do successful battle with it. I know that now. But then….

Then I was just a Mom, a teacher, and more recently, a conductor. But deep down, where it counts, I knew what I really was: a fraud.

And if I messed up, everyone would know it.

So I didn’t allow myself even a moment of uncertainty. I over-prepared. I over-rehearsed the musicians. I oversaw every detail — chairs, music stands, drums, piano, printed programs, cookies in the vestibule — there was no detail too small for my attention.

When I finally stepped out, smiled, bowed, and stepped up onto the podium, I knew that everything was perfect. I had learned the one, main secret of success: over-preparation. And it brought with it a feeling of satisfaction that I wasn’t prepared for.

As I smiled at my musicians — my orchestra! — and raised my baton that first time, I acknowledged — and dismissed — the wave of fear that made my hand tremble for just a moment. I knew I had the antidote to that fear. I had prepared it away. I had killed it by meeting it head-on, early, and not allowing it in.

No one that night suspected that I might not know what I was doing, that I might not have been trained for this job. They only saw me, the conductor.

I was an orchestra conductor because I believed I was.

When my son suggested that we climb Half Dome together, I felt the same fear: I’m not a real climber. I’m a fraud, not trained enough to do the route he suggested, called Snake Dike, that snakes up the shoulder of Half Dome. I didn’t belong up there, climbing at almost 9,000 feet.

But the photo of both of us standing on top of Half Dome that day hangs on my kitchen wall as proof that you can do whatever you believe you can do. Version 3


p.s. I created/founded the West Sacramento Community Orchestra in 1990, and conducted it for four years. We played in venues all over West Sacramento and in Sacramento, including Downtown Plaza. When I moved away and could no longer continue as director or conductor, the orchestra continued under a new baton. They now perform two holiday concerts each year in West Sacramento.