Thursday, May 21, 2015

Wilma's Birthday

We normally witness each other in horseback riding clothes on Tuesday mornings. We wave shovels, and brooms and trundle about with wheelbarrows.  Our persons adorned with hay straws, we break for coffee after the morning routine before the riding lessons start. I am never as early as the majority who come at the top of the morning to muck out.

The school teacher with careful enunciation who habitually becomes quite red when riding, heavily sweating in the lightest of cotton shirts, sat graced an eyelet fabric blouse in the restaurant. She poured fresh orange juice over her sensible sandals. Not because it was too warm in the restaurant. The exertion was Wilma’s birthday.  The calm, almost imperturbable Wilma, who decided every Tuesday who was riding which horse had come out to celebrate. We were taking her out to dinner and it had been decided, after much deliberation, that we would dine on Greek tapas.

 A wide embroidered top, the bright threads standing out against the white cotton fabric, hung, casually crinkled, over the gathered legs of her blue trousers, the woman who enjoyed medieval festivals, shooting off arrows in the archery competitions had shed the plastic boots decorated with pink roses. Modest off white leather shoes, closed by leather laces, peeped from under the ankles. “You are not going to be like my daughter in law,” she warned me rolling her eyes at the thought of her American capital and tapping her empty wine glass on the wooden table like a gavel. “You’ve got to loosen up.” I nodded dutifully over my mineral water. By the time I had arrived, the last, the group had drunk a few starters. “You are like the cat in the tree.” She continued, eyes gleaming from behind her glasses.

“I am afraid I am extremely boring,” I assured her.

“Oh no you’re not!” She retorted.

“I like to get to learn how every horse is different,” said the sculptor in the near permanent black mascara, “Last time I was assigned Klavier for the first time ever; I tried to put the bridle on, but he kept backing up.”

“Ja!” joined in the short physiotherapist with brilliant blue eyes, “You’ve got to put the saddle on first!” He still had his upper set of teeth in, sometimes I see him suck them in and out of his broad jaw.

Although we were sitting under large black wine casks in the narrow space, the walls of the restaurant had moved and, joining us from afar, were all the horses, as if in a field next to us, grazing passively listening in on the comments. “Olaf!” the physiotherapist went on, “Has this trick of backing up to the last inch of the rope.” The horses’ soft muzzles tugged at the ground, their velvet ears pricked forward. They paid us no mind as we scrubbed and polished over their small imperfections.

Wilma was on one side of the table in a dress to show off her great legs. She discussed the state of the bitten finger with the rider who looked the least different of all of us in her street clothes.  In fact the woman with the mangled finger looked of all of us the most likely to jump on a horse and take some exercise. Wilma’s shoulder had a touch of the leopard print, her upper arm sported a large fuschia-pink rose.  The finger was healing. Across from me the free spirit nodded, his eyes sharp. “Spiffy jacket,” I remarked.  He touched the red and white cross patch on his sleeve, “Swiss Cross!” he said. He’s remarkable for an actor, he says so little. “After the mess of the riots in Amsterdam back in the day, I went off to Bretagne. Got me two pigs and some sheep.”

“How long were you there?”

“Six years.” He glanced out at the drizzle in the May evening.

“Now, if you don’t say hello to Merlijn, he sticks out his hind leg and broods.” The information came from the other side of the table.  Merlijn, too, sometimes demonstrates wandering teeth.

We were missing one. A card was sent around, and not much was said. There was not much to say, we’d have to wait and see. Hope and open understanding was accepted as two graceful guests at the table silently drinking wine in a corner.


Monday, May 11, 2015

On Being Euridice

I have returned from the dead, or shall we say the unfortunate state of being nonresponsive in relation to a large part of my life, and I know that this is why Euridice has fascinated me for years. Even in the years wherein I was still wandering around in a what could be called partially as a lifeless stupor, deep inside I still hung on to the hope of redemption of life. Can love haul one from the underworld?

“Will you sing for me next week?” my old voice teacher asked me when I was visiting Paris last month.

I brightened up a bit thinking of my present repertoire, “Of course,” I said. “I could sing Euridice for you.”

Although 88, she was still sharp as a tack and seized upon the matter immediately. “The voice gets heavier and rounder with age, doesn’t it?” She stated suspiciously. She avoided asking me to sing the Gluck aria next time I saw her, my score lay in a plastic bag undesired.

True, when I sang in her opera class years ago I sang the role of Amor. When I sang in the opera class in Amsterdam, I did not sing Euridice. I sat on the sideline, irritated, watching another soprano sing Euridice. Of course, my voice was lighter then, and less formed, but it was the drama of Euridice I longed to experience as catharsis, expressing the inexpressible. It is possible that I understand the soul of the dead Euridice more than the average person.

“You may not discuss this with anyone.” I was told as a girl. I was thirteen, and I was no longer to have any contact with my grandmother. It had been decided. I had also been told that the matter would be handled. The suggestion was that things would eventually come around, or that is what I hoped as I was close to my grandmother in both resemblance and spirit. In my mind and heart, I intuited that I would see her again. Seventeen years down the road, I finally woke up and realized that things had been handled just the way my parents had perfectly decided they would be handled and they were fine by it. I wasn’t.  Seventeen years without contact and I went back, not heeding the warnings and threats that came by letter and phone calls from my parents, I was rising from the dead.

It was obvious that I had been written off as dead in one swift cleaving of the soul, for by the time my grandmother had died a second and final time in my life, I found myself cleaning out boxes in her garage. She had done as I had done; we had tried to forget each other. I found my old school photos, letters and mementos hastily thrown haphazard in a cardboard box shoved at the very back of the garage where the nose of the car normally blocked off the access.  I found my mother’s baby book hidden between the joints of the cupboard near the kitchen door, in an area that could only be reached by the highest ladder in the house.

Did others intercede in those dark years to try to fix the wrong? Yes, I can recall a few Amors, too few for my liking, flying about and not succeeding in repairing the communication cables. Being young at the time, I am not sure I was totally aware of the efforts, and I asked people specifically around the time my grandmother was nearing death. She, of course, had been delighted when I finally sent word asking to talk to her. Euridice sings, “What a proud moment, what a barbaric sort, too leave death behind, and be delivered into such pain.” The confrontation is excruciating.

I set out on my road to the living around the time that internet had commenced to make an entrance into our private lives. Residing in the Netherlands by then, one of the main reasons I left the states was due to the psychological damage of my family situation, I searched for my grandmother’s name online. You must understand no one was going to help me. Not only had the lines been severed to my grandmother, but utmost effort had been made to sever all other communication venues to her by way of other family members on either maternal or paternal sides. All information was held by my parents, and they categorically refused to assist me.

“You have a grandmother?” a friend of mine gasped at me when I told her of my plan. “I never knew you had a grandmother. You never mentioned her.”  

I found what seemed to be my grandmother’s phone number on line. I called America. I carefully asked the woman on the phone a few questions and finally admitted, “I am looking for my grandmother.”

There was a sharp inhalation on the other side of the world. “No,” the poor woman said finally, “I am not your grandmother.”

It occurred to me that this was not the right way to go about my task, and too painful to submit unsuspecting strangers to this process. I decided to try another angle. After searching my memory I recalled a trip to Montana.  To get to Montana, at the age of thirteen, in order to visit with a school friend who had moved mid-year from Berkeley to Helena, my grandmother had arranged that I should catch a lift with her brother over the Montana border.  Her brother had come for the summer family reunion that my grandmother had organized. As usual I was visiting my grandmother alone, without my parents, as I had done nearly every summer since I was quite small. My great-uncle and aunt loaded me up in their pick-up truck equipped with a camper, and dropped me off in Butte where I took a Greyhound to Helena.

I studied a map of Montana, looking for small towns over the state border near Butte. Then I launched searches for the last name of my uncle in those towns.  I found his son, and called to leave a message.

Within an hour my grandmother called me back. It was not the end of the unhappiness, it was an end of a period of numbness, genre my private death. Entering the world of the living again was extremely painful.

“I used to be contented,” sings Euridice struggling with the decision to go back to the world of the living, “With these placid surroundings, what if I lose my heart?”

“You give me goose bumps when you sing this,” a coach stared at me.

Hmmm…..coming up two performances of Orfeo ed Euridice, and I am in good company.  We are doing a shortened version of the Gluck opera, telling the story with dancers and singers and even a vocal ensemble is joining us on the 29th of May.

16 mei - 20:00 Orfeo ed Euridice - Amsterdam
De Boomspijker Rechteboomsloot 52

29 mei - 20:00 Orfeo ed Euridice & Via Schola Kwartet - Utrecht
Muziekhuis -  Loevenhoutsedijk 301




Monday, May 4, 2015

The Shaky Top

We all like to peek at one another’s lives, don’t we? Facebook is definitely the place for this pastime, which unfortunately can turn very black. Once upon a time I taught individual singing lessons to a group of people who sang in a choir outside of the town where I lived. Every fortnight I’d set up a schedule and then arrive at a church or community center to teach.  When the community center was no longer the basis of the choir, I’d rotate around people’s houses. I got to know that particular group of people reasonably well. All very nice, warm hearted Dutch people who had some affiliation with a church, the choir being sacred music orientated. Some years later, having ceased being their teacher, one of them, or perhaps it was I, found ourselves on Facebook and thus the abstract communication link was created.  To my astonishment I discovered, via a blog post, sometime around 2012 that one of my former singing pupils had gone up to Mount Everest, and nearly reached the top. Well, this person in particular is extremely fit, highly intelligent and adventurous so why should I be surprised? Mostly I was taken aback because I myself would never consider such an undertaking. I have never understood the desire to climb mountains. While I can admire a picture of an alpine flower, I dislike snow, heights, hiking, hiking boots, sleeping outside, tents, backpacks, trudging, camping and people who claim to be in seventh heaven in the wild open air while I am utterly miserable sitting on a rock, my feet in the mud, praying that the ordeal will be over as soon as possible.

Therefore, I asked myself, what should I make of this information? Not knowing very much about climbing, or climbing in Nepal, I congratulated the friend heartily, a bit in the spirit of “Well done then, you’ve challenged yourself and tried your best to achieve your goal.”

Online checking my mail one afternoon a few weeks ago, I saw the news of a major earthquake in Nepal flash by the screen. “Hold on,” I thought to myself, “Didn’t I see recently a blog post about returning this spring to Mount Everest this spring on my home scroll?”

I looked at his FB page. Yes, he was obviously in Nepal. His last blog, posted three days previously, talked about having reached Base Camp and planning to start ascending. Considering the danger of avalanches, by all accounts he was probably dead. I didn’t post any message on his FB page, thinking that tact would be best as it was only half an hour into the news reports.  However, a slightly panicky comment from a concerned friend did appear on his wall within the hour.  There was no news until the next day when an update was posted on his blog. He’d reached his family via satphone and was well. It was unbelievable. Immediately afterwards, the aftershocks started and the fresh avalanches cascaded down the mountains. No news. Then a report: he’d escaped that too.  Other climbers who survived were calling for helicopters to come and carry them to safety.  Reports about climbers running out of spare oxygen were released. I prayed he wouldn’t die on the mountain waiting for a rescue. It turns out, in the end, he walked his way down the mountain with his Sherpa.

Bothersome news reports, which tickled my irritation, came to my attention during coverage of the disaster. Climbers calling for helicopters? Whole villages were flattened and there was no way to get access into the area except by helicopter. Hold on, how many people were on Mount Everest? Hundreds? Yes, hundreds. So many people apply to climb Mount Everest these days, a limited amount of permits are issued and the costs attached are phenomenal. Basically, a bunch of rich people are climbing the mountain. I read his old blog from 2012 in which he describes the experience of attempting the top in stormy conditions.  He’d been prepared to routinely see dead bodies of long dead climbers, but he had not been prepared to see people staggering around the top of the mountain who were obviously not going to get down, and were in fact, dying before his eyes.

Intrigued by this whole new side of the world opening up to me I googled articles.  I saw pictures of rows of climbers in the cue to get up the mountain, I read about people starting to climb at 2 am to beat the traffic at the top. I ask myself: Is driving from Utrecht to Amsterdam in rush hour now considered top sport? Oh, the car thing which reminds me: have you heard of a Sherpa?

We think of Mount Everest, excuse me Chomolungma, as a remote nature reserve. “It’s a trash can.” Journalists report.  In 2010 and 2011 Sherpas went up to remove tons of trash left by the mountaineering tourists. They removed bodies as well, having received permission by the families to cremate the remains.  Here I begin to imagine orange vested prisoners being sent to Nepal to retrieve trash, make them grateful for the air they breathe.

The climbers, their intentions having been interrupted by a major earthquake, did not want to leave the mountain. After all, they paid to be there and earthquake or no earthquake the mountain was still standing. Some tour operators cancelled the season out of respect for those that died and the suffering below, as it seemed to be “the thing to do.” Obviously, the thing to do is to turn Chomolungma into a well-run theme squeaky clean park so people with a lot of money can continue to be exclusive. Who else wants to be there? “Egos,” my friends said firmly without mercy, “It’s about the egos of these people.”