Category Archives: Cities

Singing Italian in a Jewel Box

At a friend’s suggestion, I recently made a list of challenges and achievements, and discovered that many of my greatest accomplishments have been things that scared me silly at the time.  Here are some items on that list:

+ Lived and studied in Paris
+ Ran a half-marathon
+ Finished first on my team in a regional cross-country race on a rainy, muddy day
+ Canoed through rural Quebec
+ Studied Italian and traveled through Sicily
+ Studied and played organ professionally

All of these experiences involved adventure and challenge. Some entailed physical anguish:  aching at mile 10 of a half-marathon or portaging on a canoe trip.  Other times, the anguish was mental: realizing I had a ways to go at speaking French fluently or being a virtuoso at the organ.

Stretching my limits is both exciting and nerve-wracking.  Since it’s Easter weekend, I’m doing a lot of singing and playing the organ–activities that are very rewarding but make me nervous, because improvement is always possible. When I’m offered an opportunity to play, my inner response tends to be, “This makes me nervous, and I really want to say yes.”

I’ve played the piano since I was seven, but only started learning the organ a couple of years ago.  It’s easy to think people will notice every mistake, but the truth is, no one’s standards for my playing are as high as my own.

Before playing, I often think, “It won’t be perfect, but it will be beautiful.”  This mindset helps me to stay present.  Playing is worth the nervousness–it’s creative, rewarding and fun.  It’s also gratifying to see my progress, no matter how slow.  It gives me a sense of achievement, and hopefully has a positive impact on others.

How can we light the path to our achievements?  Visions can be powerful tools.  I use visions in many areas of my life:  work, family, health.  My “music vision” continues to evolve, but core components are a pipe organ, choir loft, beautiful sanctuary with stained glass, singing a foreign language, decently paid, and pastoral support.

One church where I played last summer checked nearly all of these boxes.  It was gorgeous, like a jewel box or music box–a music box decked with jewels, perhaps.  I played on a 3-manual pipe organ and sang Italian hymns.  It had a choir loft, so I didn’t feel conspicuous.  It didn’t check one or two boxes, but otherwise, it was a music dream come true.

I knew less about the pipe organ when I began playing at that church than I do today.  When I sent in my resume, it was because I believed that I knew enough to get started, to pick up what I didn’t know, and to do a good job.

I had enough passion that I took the right steps to get hired, and filled in the gaps later.  I studied registration more closely–principals,  flutes and reeds; 8, 16, and 4 foot stops.  I learned about couplers.  At first, I relied primarily on pistons (pre-sets), but after a few weeks, I was doing my own registration (or selection of stops).

My vision got me to that point of playing the organ and singing Italian in a jewel-box of a church.  I can look back at various mistakes I’ve made–playing at the wrong time, missing a note or two, ending a hymn too soon–and congratulate myself.

Why?  In most lines of work, someone who is successful fails more than someone who isn’t successful; she just recovers more quickly from her failures.  Who remembers a missed note–or even notices? If I always played it safe, I wouldn’t leave my house.  Some of my “peak experiences,” or vivid memories that reveal my core values, involved stepping way out of my comfort zone, being scared silly, and taking action anyway.

Speaking of leaving my house, the first month I lived in Paris, I barely ventured outside my new neighborhood as I acclimated to new surroundings and a new language.  Yet by the end of the year, I felt at home in the City of Lights.  My comfort zone had widened.  I had learned to navigate the subway, shop for groceries and order lunch at a cafe–all in French.  I certainly hadn’t felt comfortable doing those things when I arrived.

Passion conquers fear, but not without courage and persistence.  We need to be willing to fail, and keep moving forward anyway, to make our dreams a reality.  So keep failing, keep succeeding, and you’ll move ever closer to your wildest dreams.

What is something that you’ve achieved in spite of adversity, because your passion was greater than your fear?  What challenges have you taken on because deep down, you knew that you had it in you?  Most importantly, how can you apply that learning to what you want next in your life?

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Weekends in Newark: Nicer than You Think

There is nothing like the weekend.  It’s been said before.  Still, there are times when I wake up from a nap, make myself a cup of tea with soymilk, and sip it on the living room couch, looking out the window onto snowy Independence Park, and am struck with so much pleasure and gratitude that I’m nearly incredulous.

I’ve lived in the house that I share with my husband, our cat, three sets of tenants (and their dog and two cats) for a little over two years.  We spent the first three years of our marriage in a 3-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where we rented out the other two rooms.  It was supposed to be temporary, but we hadn’t planned on it being 3 years.  That’s a long time for a married couple to share a kitchen and bathroom with roommates!

Granted, the location was amazing, with Manhattan just two stops away on the L train, cafes aplenty outside our doorstep, and a backyard with a cherry tree, fig tree, and grapevines…yes, trees grow in Brooklyn.  Once, a NY Times reporter contacted me for a story on the number of responses Williamsburgers get to Craigslist ads for subletters, and it’s true, there was no shortage of interested parties.

Regardless, a certain strain was inherent in our living situation, so moving to our own house has been a little piece of heaven.  I’m still getting used to having a guest room, living room, and dining room.  I don’t have to guess if it’s our food in the fridge or someone else’s.

My husband doesn’t even seem to mind taking out the trash, a job that we (thankfully) assigned along traditional gender lines.   Maybe he enjoys the feeling of proprietorship.  (It’s *our* trash, well ours and the tenants’, ha ha).  In any case, I get it–when I mop the kitchen, something I could probably stand to do more often, I have the feeling that this is *our* floor.  It’s a feeling I never had as a renter.

I should take this opportunity to clear the air and share that we live in Newark, and it’s a lot nicer than you think.  🙂  (Don’t tell too many people, though, or you’ll drive up the cost of living.)  We live in the Ironbound, a mostly Portuguese and Brazilian neighborhood 22 minutes on the PATH train from World Trade (hence the title of this blog).

Purchasing a multi-family house with three bedrooms for ourselves wouldn’t have been possible in the urban core of Brooklyn.  We just have to put up with the occasional response, “you live in Newark?  You just hear Newark and you think…” (then they make a face, trailing off).  People’s memories of the ’67 riots die hard.

Yet I feel like I’m in Europe or South America.  My hairdresser kisses me on the cheek.  I can get a “galao” (Portuguese for latte) for under two bucks, and an excellent fish dinner at any number of restaurants.

There are tons of cultural amenities.  We live near NJ PAC, where we’ve heard the NJ Symphony Orchestra, and brought my family to readings at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival.  My brother-in-law gave us a patron’s membership to the Newark Museum one Christmas, whose Asian, American, African, and Classical art collections we’ve enjoyed, as well as the Ballantine House.  There’s excellent hiking 25 minutes away–not to mention Branch Brook Park in Newark proper, with the largest collection of cherry blossoms in the country.

I’ve gotten involved as a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters, which paired me with an amazing 10-year-old girl.  We go on “dates” as she calls them, to all the best that the area has to offer, both in Newark and nearby towns (like the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn where we saw “A Christmas Carol,” and Turtle Back Zoo).  I’m hoping to take her to the Newark Museum and the Dodge Poetry Festival later this year, and perhaps to see a game at the Prudential Center (where the Super Bowl Media Day was held).

snow

It’s good to have a home, and good to have a neighborhood.  I’m grateful for small pleasures on a wintry day, like writing my blog with the cat on my lap and a cup of tea, watching late-afternoon strollers in the park and hearing the chatter of birds.

What are you most grateful for about your neighborhood and home?  Do you have any special morning or evening rituals?  What do you enjoy about weekends where you live?  I’d love to hear from you–please leave a comment and click “share!”

Herald Square: Staying Sane in an Overstimulating City

I work in midtown NYC in the publishing field.  I often walk to the PATH train at Herald Square after work, instead of taking the subway.  It gives me time to call friends or family, lets me fit in some exercise, and I can save the $2.50 for a trip to a cafe in my Ironbound neighborhood of Newark.

One person I often call on these walks is my 94-year-old grandmother.  She always wants to know where I am and what I see as I’m walking.  She lives in rural Indiana and I imagine she would be taken aback by just how busy NYC is.  This is true year-round, but it particularly strikes me in December.  There’s no shortage of sights and sounds to take in–some positive, like the lights at Macy’s; others negative, like the sirens that make me plug my ears–but all of them stimulating.

How do we survive so much stimuli in a place like NYC without becoming overwhelmed, particularly for a highly sensitive person like I am?  For me, the answer lies in filtering the sensory stimuli, deciding what is most important to focus on.  Letting the rest go, and letting what’s interesting be heightened.  This way, I can appreciate the beautiful parts of my surroundings (the iceskating rink at Bryant Park), and pay little attention to what I dislike.

What’s even better is when I can apply this filter to my own thoughts.  Perspective is so powerful.  What is it like to focus on life events that displease or discourage me?  Conversely, what is it like to appreciate the good in all my experiences?

Two of my character defects are negative thinking and perfectionism.  My character strengths (whew!) include gratitude and curiosity.  I have practiced paying attention to which thoughts could allow me the most insight, and infusing that perspective with curiosity and gratitude.  For example, although I am tired after work, isn’t it good to have a choice of whether I go to the gym, and how hard I work out once I’m there?  What if I focused on what it would feel like to go for an easy jog?  How would I feel 10 minutes into the run, and again after I’ve finished running?  How would I sleep afterwards?  Isn’t it good that it’s a choice to be curious about, not a rule to beat myself over the head with?

My choices have consequences.  I’m grateful that I can experience the results of my choices and notice what does or doesn’t work, in a way that’s loving and observant, not judgmental.  I can change my perspective, like closing my eyes when the train is packed to capacity.  Or I can change my actions–like walking a half-hour and making a phone call instead of cramming myself onto the subway, on days when that’s the last thing I feel like doing.

And when I feel like I’ve made a lousy choice or am having a lousy day, I can see it instead as a chance to practice having a creative perspective.

How would it feel to tweak the thoughts and actions that we choose on a daily basis?  How many possibilities would open up?

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