Y’all just better be just turnin’ back if you want this boy to win
‘Cos practice is the only cure for the predicament he’s in

“Now devil it would be a sin for you to get my bow
You go on back to hell and to the woodshed I will go”

Johnny are you practicing or will your hands grow cold?
The devil walks the land and plays a fiddle made of gold

–The Charlie Daniels Band, “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia”


Thursdays were lesson days. More often than not, my stomach spent most of the day clenched with dread, knowing that I hadn’t practiced enough. I meant to practice, I truly did. I loved playing and I loved the music. But time after school seemed to fill up with so many other things, like comic books. Or cartoons. Or, ugh, homework.

I would heave a sigh, then heave my instrument case over my shoulder as I began the walk of shame up to a modest suburban NJ ranch. Shoes came off at the door and my toes curled into dense cream carpet. Clenching my toes while playing was one of a multitude of small bad habits that Mrs. E would gently correct each lesson.

Too often, I would be lucky enough to make it through the lessons on raw talent.  Sight reading came fairly easily and I had perfect relative pitch. But this was not one of those squeak-though-Kreutzer days–in fact, I hadn’t had one of those days in several months.  After a rather frustrating 20 minutes, it was painfully obvious this was the first time I had looked at the material since she assigned it the previous week.

Mrs. E never asked, “Did you practice?” Somehow, this always made me feel more guilty.

She set down her violin. She folded her hands and took a breath. My toes grabbed the carpet and I could feel my eyes filling. Here it comes, I thought, she’s going to drop me as a student. Just like the last teacher.

“You know, my husband played the violin before The War. But he was a dentist and he knew how to suture, so they made him a medic. He didn’t play for the entire time he was overseas.

“Like so many young GIs, Les was at loose ends when he returned from Europe.  One day walking through Newark, he heard music. String music. As he got closer, he realized it was a quartet playing Bach.

“He climbed the steps and knocked on the door of the apartment. The music stopped, and a man with a fiddle in his hands opened the door. Les told them how much he enjoyed the music, how he used to play before The War. The man swept him inside and before he knew it the violin was back in his hands. He hasn’t stop playing since.”

She smiled with great certainty. “You will never lose this. The violin is a part of you, now. You may set it aside for a time but if you want it, it will always be there for you.

“Practice isn’t about learning how to play the violin for you anymore. You know how to play the violin. Practice is about making something beautiful.”

Woodshedding. Among musicians, it means “practice.” The musician’s Devil isn’t some supernatural demon. The Devil is your own talent. Itzhak Perlman famously said that a gifted student is lucky if she can survive her own talent.  If you want to beat the Devil, you gotta head out to the woodshed and get crackin’. You beat him every time you play something beautiful.

Mrs. E died this past August at the age of 88. According to her obituary, she was teaching right up until the end.

The Keeper of Palmyra

palmyra-khaled-asaad-gettyThe news of Khaled al-Asaad’s murder shocked me to the core. This man was a scholar, absolutely devoted to the study of his beloved Palmyra.  His torture and beheading at the hands of Daish (ISIL) for refusing to reveal the locations of valuable antiquities is the the most revolting and reprehensible of war crimes.

I did not know Mr. Asaad personally, but his unbridled enthusiasm and curiosity are shared by all archaeologists. I cannot even imagine what his family is going through, the horror of losing a loved one in such a way. I can only pray that in time, they will be proud of the sacrifice he made.  This 82-year-old man protected his life’s work to his last breath.  May we all stand so certain in our convictions in the face of barbarism.

Journey to the Ancestors

This last blogging hiatus was a bit longer than I anticipated, but with good reason: I drove my father out to the family cemetery in Ohio so that he could visit his brother’s grave.  My uncle died last year, but the ashes were shipped out to Ohio in 2014 and as such my father had not been able to pay his respects. In spite of two minor car accidents in one day (neither of which were our fault, and one of which was a hit-and-run), it was a deeply satisfying trip.  I was able to take many picture of the family plots, which will help flesh out the genealogical profiles for each of these people.  I also now have graveyard dirt from the triple crossroad in the center of the cemetery.  Likely there will be an paternal ancestor bottle coming soon.

But for now, some pics from the trip:


Where is the line between prayer and poetry?  It’s blurred more often than not.  This is why I love Pinsky, Heaney, the Romantics. That very ambiguity is delicious.  I love how my pagan gods hide beneath the rhythms of secularism.

Today, I’d like to share one of my favorite poems by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.  It’s a wheel poem, a harvest poem, and a musing on cycles, family, and ancestors.  Read it aloud, and taste the words, feast on sounds as they tumble and circle each other. Enjoy.

Robert Pinsky

Stone wheel that sharpens the blade that mows the grain,
Wheel of the sunflower turning, wheel that turns
The spiral press that squeezes the oil expressed
From shale or olives. Particles that turn to mud
On the potter’s wheel that spins to form the vessel
That holds the oil that drips to cool the blade.

My mother’s dreadful fall. Her mother’s dread
Of all things: death, life, birth. My brother’s birth
Just before the fall, his birth again in Jesus.
Wobble and blur of my soul, born only once,
That cleaves to circles. The moon, the eye, the year,
Circle of causes or chaos or turns of chance.

The line of a tune as it cycles back to the root,
Arc of the changes. The line from there to here
Of Ellen speaking, thread of my circle of friends,
The art of lines, chord of the circle of work.
Radius. Lives of children growing away,
The plant radiant in air, its root in dark.