That Doesn’t Happen Here.

I cried when Reagan was shot. When you attend a school that has one hundred or so different nationalities, your country of origin is part of your identity in a way that just doesn’t exist here in the States. And I was Capital-A American. The US was Where I Was From. “Where are you from?” is a common small-talk topic at an international school abroad.

America didn’t have coup d’etats like Africa did. As a child, I knew this with certainty. When I returned to the US permanently in July of 1990, I knew I was leaving the possibility of real government upheaval behind and going home to where democracy worked.

This fact gave me a fundamental feeling of security and safety. I wasn’t fully aware of how important this was to me until the events of Wednesday, Jan 6th 2021 tore it away.

On that Wednesday, I spent the day glued to news outlets, unsure what nightfall might bring. I fully expected the Capitol to be set ablaze. I worried for our female legislators; the mob looked so male and so angry. It was all too familiar. Nearly 40 years prior, in 1985, in Liberia, Thomas Quiwonkpa and his cronies attempted to overthrow the government of Samuel K Doe, who had himself come to power in a clumsy and bloody coup. My family had spent a similar afternoon glued to the BBC broadcast throughout the day, unsure what nightfall might bring. That coup attempt failed, and Quiwonkpa was killed, his mutilated body put on display, some 3,000 others rounded up, killed, disappeared.

There are lots of things about the attack on the Capitol that one can be angry about: from the vandalism to the beating death of a Capitol Police officer, from the apparent organization and pre-planning on display to the fact that it appears the delay in sending the National Guard to quell the violence may have been the fault of the President himself, there are enraging facts all around. But for those who have lived through this kind of violence before elsewhere in the world, there’s an additional sheen of outrage. This formerly-little girl, who cried when the President was shot because she loved America, who moved back to the US believing that never, ever could a bloody, stupid coup happen in the States, the kind where people die in mobs, where fear is used as a weapon to keep a president in power after it’s clear he is mentally unhinged and dangerous, where people collude against their own representatives and seek to hang members of the executive branch, that little girl had to sit through an afternoon like the Sixth. Americans do not attempt to violently overturn their own government because a demagogue has lied to them for five months. That doesn’t happen here. Until it did.

Years after the attempted coup by Thomas Quiwonkpa, another man, American-educated Charles Taylor, sunk Liberia into two gruesome civil wars and pulled down what was left of Liberia, sending my family back to the United States. And now these American insurrectionists and those who have used lies to incite their protest, action, and violence, claiming to be patriots while tracking literal shit across the halls of the crowning jewel of one of the world’s most successful democracies, have done the same as Doe, Quiwonkpa, Taylor, and the rest: they have crumpled and stomped on what I believed about the place I call home. And I am angry.

Why You Didn’t Hear Your Friend’s Covid Story.

She’s heard you blame people who get sick. “They deserve what they get!” It was her first dinner at a restaurant in seven months. She sat outside. But she got sick anyway.

She’s heard you talk about how awful it is that people are attending church, even though her masked, limited-occupancy church services, with no social hours, no events, and no Bible study hour, are her last remaining lifeline to any mental stability at all.

He overheard you say that “hardly anyone dies from this! Most people have a mild case!” When he wonders where the last two months of his life have gone, a blur of lost work, lost income, exhaustion, and perplexing headaches, he thinks you’re not sure what the word “mild” even means.

She can see your comments on the local newspaper’s Facebook page about people who “would have died anyway” and wonders if the fact that she’s lost her Mom would even matter to you. She hasn’t told you her mom died because she’s afraid of finding out that it wouldn’t.

His favorite uncle died of complications of Covid but he doesn’t want to face a line of your accusatory questions about his uncle’s pre-existing health issues.

He’s muted you on Facebook because you keep posting about how masks are a violation of people’s freedom and they don’t work anyway, and he doesn’t want to become an anecdote in your personal anti-masking campaign.

She’s really scared by the cognitive changes Covid can bring. Conversations are exhausting. Sometimes she doesn’t understand what people say to her. It can be embarrassing and frustrating. Sometimes it makes her cry.

She was too sick to risk a phone call that might end up in a diatribe about how over-exaggerated this Covid stuff all is.

He’s got just enough strength to get through the day at work, after 10 days of fever and another two weeks of recovery. There’s nothing left at the end of the day. He’s not up for explaining to you why he’s not going out to the bars with the rest of the guys and why he wishes you wouldn’t either.

She’s trying to balance her family’s mental health with the risks of exposure, as best she can. Every decision is fraught with doubt. But your posts about how you’re just fine staying home indefinitely, working remotely, and ordering in all your groceries make it sound like you wouldn’t understand why she finally let her teenager spend some time with her boyfriend.

He was in the hospital, on oxygen.

She watched her grandma die via FaceTime. Nothing else seems to matter much right now.

Covid took four months of her life, and she’s not sure how to put it back together. She’s grieving a life changed, but she doesn’t know it yet.

He’s angry that you didn’t tell him you’d missed work because you felt like crap the day before he stopped by for a beer in the backyard. He wonders if you gave him Covid.

She is tired. He is tired.

She feels like her whole life has shifted on its axis.

He’s afraid you won’t understand.

She’s lonely in her recovery but doesn’t know how to reach out.

She’s struggling. He’s struggling.

She wants you to be more kind. He wants you to stop making assumptions.

Covid survivors need you: we all need each other. More than ever.

Be human first.

Things I Learned Growing Up In Africa That Have Helped During A Pandemic.

It can be hard to see God in the big things, so look for Him in the small mercies. He’s there. Always.

You can’t do your favorite things in your favorite way anymore, so you have two choices: don’t do them at all or figure out a different way to do them.

There’s very little you can change about your circumstances. The sooner you understand this, the sooner you can get on with living as much life as you can, regardless.

If you can pull your head out of your box of expectations, though, there are more things you can change about your circumstances than it might seem.

Some of those things are between your ears.

Bad things can be funny. So can stupid things. Laugh the devil away.

Sing more.

Normalcy bias is a luxury of a privileged, spoiled society. To the extent you can, abandon it.

Instant culture change is hard. It’s okay to grieve what you don’t have right now.

Death is always nearer than you think.

But so is laughter.

There’s value in effort. Try hard.

But when you can’t, you can’t. It’s okay.

Keep living anyway.

Easter in West Africa didn’t look like American Easter, but we still had Easter.

The Life of a 2002 Buick Park Avenue

  • Year 1: Purchased by Howard & Nancy Gitmeijer upon Howard’s retirement from Acme Insurance. 
  • Year 3: recall issued for “liquids” collecting in driver’s side window switch. 
  • Year 4: car sold to the second owner.
  • Year 4: liquid can be seen sloshing in the plastic switch when the car is driven at night
  • Year 7: window goes up and down 3 out of every 5 times, for three years, whereupon it finally jams, starting a fire inside the door card. Door card melts, but central locking still works most of the time. Carpet contains black charred blobs from door card fire. The third owner replaces the door card with one in a different color from a Pick n’ Pull parts yard. 
  • Year 8: Plastic cover breaks off electric seat controls, leaving a small tin nub.
  • Year 9: The third owner pulls a charred blob off the carpet, discovers it fits on the tin nub.
  • Year 14: seat motor fails but the seat can be adjusted by sitting on the rear bench seat and shoving seat forward with two feet on the seatback.
  • Year 14.5: Map pocket on the back of seat shreds and backing of upholstery material crumbles, dusting the carpet with small particles. Fortunately, the formerly-black carpet has faded to the same shade as the upholstery backing and the bits of rotted polymer are not noticeable. 
  • Year 16: Car miraculously passes emissions testing with the door-ajar chime stuck permanently on.
  • Year 17: Rearview mirror falls off but rain-sensing wipers continue to function. 
  • Year 18: Front driver’s side map pocket breaks in two pieces and a withered cough drop falls to the new owner’s driveway. Headliner glue largely fails but headliner remains fasted at the perimeter of car ceiling. 
  • Year 20: Recall notice found in the glove box when the fifth owner cleans out the car after purchase. 
  • Year 20.5 Car totaled out by insurance carrier after F-250 hits the passenger front quarter in a roundabout.
  • Year 25: Original owner’s son, Howard II, stumbles across the car listed for sale on Facebook Marketplace and feels compelled to purchase it, despite mismatched body panels and a missing headlight. The car runs on five cylinders out of six at any given time and produces a reedy shriek at 42 miles per hour as the half-rotted door panels vibrate oboe-like in the airflow on the sides of the car. 
  • Year 26: Buick totaled for the second time when Howard III, known to his friends as “Ward 3,” launches the car into the 7th St. bridge abutment late one rainy Saturday night while shouting, “Hold my soylent green, my dudes!” Ward 3 survives with only airbag burns and a bruised collar bone. The rain-sensing wipers flick faithfully away as the tow truck drags the Buick to an impound lot. 

The Little Unfinished Book

For four months this year, I ran a Patreon project, writing weekly about my childhood in Liberia.  I used it as the impetus to get myself moving, finally, on the memoir that I know I need to write.

The end result was the 10-thousand word start of a book, or perhaps, a really long personal essay. It needs editing. A lot of editing. It needs more proof-reading too. I think it’s a sad read. But it’s a story that I needed to tell first, in order to be able to tell the hilarious, broken, joyful, and just plain African parts of the story.  And I think, although I am not sure, that the story of how you find a lost grief and then come to terms with it bursting into your life like an ill-tempered Jewish mother-in-law might be interesting to other people.

So here it is. Unfinished, but released into the world with courage I don’t actually have (you can’t see me through the pixels, covering my eyes and holding my breath) because knowing it’s out there, imperfect, will force me to keep writing, to keep working, to keep standing tall while that Old Ma shouts at me.

Old Ma Shouting at the Cottonwood Tree

What I Learned About Death While Burying My Cat

kitty 2019My daughter and I, knowing that our cat’s passing would be this morning, dug her grave yesterday afternoon in the August heat. There’s a precious physicality to digging a grave. It’s a holy work, making up a loved creature or loved person’s last bed. It is an act of love and sacrifice that we are now missing from our rituals of death and dying, where so much is hidden from the eyes and hands of the surviving family.

We looked down into the dirt, Sk and I, and we thought that the dirt would be a good place for our kitty. God created the soil to do the work of returning His creation to him so perfectly, for keeping bodies safe until all of creation is made new and sin and decay are no more. Standing there in the afternoon sun with even my elbows sweating, smelling the wet-clay smell that is the soil of Wisconsin, I thought that we are poorer for pretending, with our embalming and crypts and waterproof coffins of polyester fake silk, plastic, and metal, that decay can be cheated.  Let the dirt and the worms do what our Lord has made these things to do. So be it. All things are in His hands. Yet in my flesh shall I see God, said Job.

This morning, my husband and I rode home with our kitty’s remains in our car, carefully placed in a small transport bag by our vet. I kept my hand on her still-warm body all the way home, so soft and limp on the seat beside me.

My daughter did not wish our kitty to be cremated and I am glad that we found a way to honor this. Absent from our modern, civilized world is the millennia-old work of women to prepare a body for burial. We women are the caretakers, often even when we don’t want to be, in birth, in emotions, in love, in grief, and in death. It is holy work, to care for others. As sad as it was to do, I felt strongly about doing this small task, as the mother and wife in the household, and so I did, carefully removing our kitty from the heavy canvas and plastic transport bag, arranging her body on a vintage linen tablecloth, and wrapping her gently up, carrying her to the place we’d prepared the day before. Sk helped me, and together we touched our kitty one more time. It was good to put her into the ground wrapped only in what would return to the earth along with her, and not in a blue body bag.

John said a prayer, thanking God for the companionship of our kitty, and asking God to keep us faithful in remembering that He has promised a new heaven and a new earth, and that someday, death, sin, and decay will be no more.  Although we hadn’t discussed it beforehand, Sk chanted the haunting, ethereal setting of the Our Father that she wrote a few months ago as I shoveled the first layer of dirt across the body of our cat.

From the day we brought our kitty home thirteen years ago, I prayed that we would not have to make the decision to bring her life to an end, that the Lord would take our kitty for us. That was not to be. When we take wild things into our homes, we also take responsibility for their welfare and their suffering. We are sub-creators of God, JRR Tolkien believed. With that comes the weight of stewardship as well.

We were given the gift of handling our cat’s death up close, of burying her with our own hands. It is good to do a few more things for the ones you love, even after they are gone. I believe this should be part of the death of humans, too, like it once was, before we became modern and professional and clean and moved death and burial out of the home and church and into the funeral parlor and crematorium. It is hard work, death and burial. It is holy and good work, too. Praise be to God, who is before all things, and in whom all things hold together.

 

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Romans 8:15-25

Othr and Mimir: A Parable of Boxes

Othr was a small person even though she stood five foot ten inches in her bare feet. She liked butterflies, self-help books, Pinterest, and making family memories.

In Othr’s mind were many tidy storage boxes, covered with scrapbook paper and labeled with brightly colored die-cut letters. Each box contained a family member or a family event: “Thanksgiving,” “Christmas,” “my sister,” “grandparents,” “family vacation,” and so on. In each box, she stored each memory that matched the label. But not every Christmas matched the Christmas box. Sometimes, her children’s grandparents didn’t act like she thought grandparents should. Nor was every anniversary special. Sometimes they got forgotten.

When something didn’t seem to fit in one of her boxes, Othr threw it away. If something happened that didn’t fit a label, she had no place to store it, and so she discarded it. Sometimes, she got angry about this.  Sometimes, she resented the people who didn’t behave in a way to match the labels lovingly pasted on her lovely boxes.

She tried sometimes to make people match her boxes, but it usually backfired. People would feel uneasy about her insistence on celebrating on a single day but no other. Sometimes, a parent or a brother was unable to participate in a way that fit into a box. Then there was the year the Easter ham caught on fire. She came home between church services to hide Easter eggs, only to find herself making a 911 call from the driveway. Her Easter box had only three mismatched plastic egg halves in it.

None of Othr’s boxes were full. In fact, you could see the bottom of most of them. As she got older, the boxes filled a little here and there, but only very slowly. As the years went on, she added a box labeled “grandchildren” that filled a little faster than the others, but her dreams of boxes and boxes and boxes labeled “grandchildren” never came to fruition.

None of Othr’s boxes ever started overflowing. They were very pretty boxes, though, and they looked lovely on the shelves. She took pictures and posted them on Instagram, because she was really liked looking at her pretty boxes all lined up on her shelves.

Her sister, Mimir, had a box in her mind, too.  Just one: a great big box with “GE Microwave” crossed out on the side and  “family” scribbled underneath. Into that box, her sister tossed every holiday, every memory with a family member, every family relationship she had, and several people to whom she was not related, no matter how imperfect, making no distinction. Into her gigantic, battered box she gleefully tossed the “just because” visits, the Christmases when a cardboard cutout stood in for a missing family member, a wedding concluded in the dark due to a power outage, and the memories she made with the children of her best friend, who, she figured, were as good as family members anyway. Some years, the box didn’t fill as quickly as she might have liked, due to family members’ hardships or canceled plans, but since she had only one big box into which everything was dumped and because she wasn’t very picky about what qualified to go into the box, the big single box steadily filled up.

After her ten-year wedding anniversary, celebrated with Chinese take-out in the kitchen while the children watched Netflix in the basement, Mimir threw some duct tape across the top of her first box, now bulging and threatening to burst open from all the memories tossed into it. She rounded up another box, scribbling “Family” on the side of it, too. Her box was messy, and she knew it. Sometimes, in her exhaustion, the memories didn’t quite make it into the box, so there were bits of memory strewn all around the floor, and certainly, nothing was sorted or organized. And her first box was ugly. It hardly square anymore and it had stains.

But it was full.

Prologue: Shadows Have No Season.

People keep telling me I need to write a book and that they want to hear my stories. I’m not always sure that the story I need to tell is the one people think they want to hear. It’s the story I have, though, and until I tell it, I won’t be able to write another one.

Sitting in my pile of papers to be filed, a pile that sits there ignored until I periodically get so annoyed at messes around the house that I rage-file the whole six months’ worth in one fury-filled block of time, sitting there in that pile is the name and phone number of a local grief and trauma counselor. I haven’t called the counselor even though I am finally considering the chance that I may have some form of a post-extended- stress. . . something. Partially I haven’t called because I’m afraid that in trying to make it better things will get worse first. I don’t feel like I have time or energy for worse. Partially I haven’t called because of an incident which happened several years ago.

Several years ago, I mentioned the acronym “PTSD” in a group of women online and I got what long-time internet-forum participants call a “nasty-gram”: an off-list private message that isn’t very nice.  I was told in no uncertain terms that I have no right to use that phrase because I haven’t been in combat.  Lesson learned, #1: don’t talk about stress after trauma in front of other people.  Lesson learned, #2: if someone else had it worse, you don’t get to be affected by whatever path it was that you walked.

A few years after the private message, though, I remembered that while I have never been a soldier, I am no stranger to the sounds of gunfire. (US military surplus M1s, to be exact; decades later I would hear vintage WWII weapons shot at a rifle range and instantly remember, with great clarity, a particular day in Monrovia, Liberia in 1985).  During the attempted coup d’etat by Quiwonkpa in 1985, with my parents away at the mission office building on errands and work, I hid in an inner bedroom of our house with my younger brother and sister, the one without windows facing Old Road, while shots rang out a few houses away.

I was eleven years old.

I didn’t tell our house-help to hide with us. I told him to stay in the living room. To this day, I feel guilty about this. Eleven-year-olds don’t always get grown-up decisions right.

There is still this urge (shared, it seems, by other stressful events-survivors) to “prove” your current feelings are legitimate by trotting out your catalog of sad and scary experiences and memories. And mine never have measured up.  That scolding private message I got proved it.

There’s more than this one incident, though, that sometimes make me sad. All of my experiences are small in light of what others have suffered, and all of my experiences are within the frame of a wonderfully happy and well-adjusted childhood with a great family and a community of fellow ex-pats which I still miss today. Which only increases my guilt at sometimes feeling upset or sad when reminded about any of it.

Maybe you will read everything that I will write and say, “Why is she hanging on to all these things that happened so long ago? She needs to just get over it. After all, it’s not like her family was killed or she was raped.” It’s true: I wasn’t. By the grace of God, even though I spent two years in an environment where girls my age were sexually assaulted by staff members, I was not. I was even spared knowing it had happened to classmates of mine until I was no longer in that place. I have guilt about this too. I feel like apologizing to these women, when I meet them, as if it is somehow my fault that I wasn’t hurt like they were.

I’d agree with you that this is all ridiculous except that the long-delayed grief over all these small things seems intent on marching into the present day entirely of her own accord, beating a drum and singing at the top of her lungs with words I can’t decipher. If it was a matter of deciding to, it would be already done.

I don’t know why I seem to be bothered about some things more now than I was when I first got back from West Africa. Or why others who grew up with me and experienced worse seem not to be bothered much at all. I don’t understand why, at a point about eighteen years after leaving Africa, I went from “not loving fireworks but able to watch them” to “curled in a ball, sobbing” during a 4th of July display in a city park in central Illinois, becoming very reluctant to ever sit through another 4th of July display. Why my family’s teasing about not liking a balloon popping near me went from “kind of funny, ha. ha.” to “okay, not funny, please stop.” I don’t know what this thing is that sits on my chest sometimes, whether grief, trauma, stress, or simply memories which, for some unknown reason, won’t play by the rules. Or something else. All I know is that it walks with me.

The only answer I have for now is that even a mouse can cast long shadows. Everything that lives makes a shape which the sun can paint in darkness. And shadows happen in every season.

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When the Lightest Band Instrument Is The Heaviest.

Growing up overseas brings a host of amazing experiences that kids back home miss out on, from travel in interesting places to learning different languages easily, from exotic pets to having two homes.

But you miss out on things, too. You don’t always get to know your grandparents well. Your blood-related cousins may be almost strangers to you while the kids you grew up with overseas become more like cousins. With every amazing opportunity comes an opportunity that “normal kids” consider routine but which you might have missed out on.

Like band.

I entered high school band for the first time my junior year of high-school, the year I returned from Africa. I landed back on US soil in mid-July, and began classes at my American high school about six weeks later. I had had flute lessons, first from a fellow missionary mom and then from a teacher at my missionary boarding school, but I’d never played with more than one other person. I had learned recorder in fourth grade like everyone does and had kept playing recorder and loved it very much. But it was a toy instrument to most people (and still is considered so today, by many.) Flute was a real instrument. I had a used flute which I knew I was lucky to have; it wasn’t easy to find traditional band instruments in West Africa.

IMG_20180826_165138_962

By junior year, most of my band-mates had been in band several years, since sixth grade. I, brand new to band, was in way over my head and pretty much all of the music was too hard for me. I cried a lot. I gave up and stopped playing sometimes, simply holding my flute and faking it. My second year was a little easier, but everything was quite difficult. I couldn’t play in the highest registers at all. (Now I know this was my flute, not me. At the time, however, I thought it was just because I wasn’t any good, and nobody told me differently.) I couldn’t hear when I was sharp or flat. (I’ve since learned, through experience in choir singing, that something about being deaf in one ear makes it a lot harder to distinguish tuning in close-harmony chords). And as a bottom-rank flutist, I sat with most of the rest of the flute section and the director to my left, deaf, side, and the bratty, obnoxiously trumpets right in my hearing ear. This didn’t help me, either.

I don’t think I even want to discuss marching.

The woodwinds teacher seemed to have little patience for the more average students under her tutelage (my youngest brother, a clarinetist, had a very different experience with the same teacher some years later). I was frequently out of tune in ensemble playing but couldn’t fix it and nearly always had to be told I was out of tune and in which direction I was out of tune. I simply couldn’t hear it. (Even today, when I can tell that two tones are not in tune with each other much more easily, I have great difficulty telling whether one is sharp or flat of the other.) My motivation suffered terribly. I started to rarely ever practice. What was the point? I never felt like I got better; the slope upwards to win approval from a disinterested teacher seemed too steep. I started sometimes skipping lessons. My teacher’s lack of interest in helping me continued to decline, understandably so.

Status markers abounded in the flute section. Good students got recommended for step-up or intermediate instruments, with open holes and a B-flat foot. I, as a mediocre student, was never recommended for a better instrument.

Fifteen years after high school, I was able to buy a solid silver flute very cheap, as it was a C-foot flute from the 1960s, back when having a B-flat foot flute wasn’t considered a marker of a “good flute.”

It was a revelation. I cried when I played it. It was so loud! and warm! And it spoke so easily! I realized then that while my lack of practicing had contributed to my lack of progress, that had happened as a result of playing a poorly-made, “student level” instrument for years. The very first thing I did with my new flute was take out all the corks in the open-hole keys, mentally shouting down my high school woodwinds teacher as I did so. I was able to play it with no trouble at all; two decades of recorder playing meant my fingers were well-used to lightly sealing instrument holes, exactly as I knew they would be (but had never been allowed to even try in high school.)

When I had a child, she proved to be acutely musically sensitive. So much so that sounds and songs stuck in her head for days. When she was small, she would often hide or cry if I played flute at home. So my new silver flute didn’t get played much at all for about fifteen years.

As my daughter moved into her teen years, she took up choir, guitar, and piano and has become a very musically-inclined person. In my mid-40s, I got out my flute again. I couldn’t play much, and that not very well. I could barely make octave jumps, one of the first things a flutist learns. The pads on the flute weren’t in great shape. The flute needed some serious repair work. Research online revealed that re-padding and adjustment could cost as much as $600, prohibitively expensive for me. But I had many mixed feelings about having the flute repaired anyway. Playing things I used to play left me frustrated, sad, or angry, or all three. There was little joy in attempting to play. I had forgotten much (and I hadn’t been very good to begin with.) I realized that if I were to start playing again, I would probably need embouchure help from a real teacher. More money to spend I did not have and would have had guilt about spending even if I did.

I tried playing sometimes, but it hurt to try. It was too hard, the hill to climb too steep and more importantly, the desire to do the work, too little. I had lost too much. I didn’t realize it yet, but I no longer loved the flute.

I couldn’t figure out why my feelings were so mixed, why even thinking about repairs often made me upset. I thought about selling my flute. What stopped me was knowing I’d get peanuts for a good silver flute with a wonderful voice, due to the out-of-fashion (for better instruments, at least) C-foot. That, and worrying that I’d someday get past my mysterious anger and hangups over my flute and regret selling it.

I had also, gradually, over my recent attempts to play my flute, come to wonder why my high school woodwinds teacher, who had, on several occasions played my flute and who was an accomplished flutist and piccolo player herself, had never suggested to me or to my parents that my flute was pretty darn awful, and might even be bad enough that it was hampering my ability to learn. Nor, despite the fact that she was an experienced teacher and had been teaching woodwinds and band for quite awhile, had my deafness in one ear ever been considered. It has, at times, made me angry. I sometimes think about overwhelmed, embarrassed, and lonely teenage me and I cry for that girl.

Last week I found myself unexpectedly in tears over music again, this time at news that John had decided to learn an advanced and challenging solo trombone piece. Why?

After a long talk with John over drinks outdoors on a beautiful late summer evening, we came to the conclusion that I had maybe continued with flute partially out of obligation rather than a pure love of the instrument. I felt I should continue playing it, because my parents had bent over backwards to find me an instrument and because, well, I had already learned it, wouldn’t want those lessons to go to waste (I’m a former missionary kid, of German immigrant stock, and a Midwesterner: the struggle to not be wasteful is painfully real) and, well, I didn’t hate it. Furthermore, as we talked, sitting out in the garage in the kind of weather that makes January in Wisconsin worth it, it became clear my feelings about the flute were also tied back to a lot of embarrassment and frustration from my band experiences, which were mixed at best and wracked with humiliation at worst.

I love recorder, though. I always have. When my fellow fourth graders left our dinky plastic recorders behind with relief, I took mine home and tried to play hymns. I kept playing recorder. I managed somehow to advance a little in the instrument, and my senior year of high school I saved up and paid for a simple wooden recorder. When John asked me what a better wooden recorder might cost (and I answered: about half what the work on my flute might cost) and then suggested that money might be better spent on a well-made wood recorder instead of repairing my flute, I knew we had found a way through this mess, because a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. As we sat there and chatted, I thought about attempting to learn something really challenging with a new, warm, broad, chiffy wood recorder and for the first time in a long time, I got excited about the thought of the challenge instead of feeling defeated and broken and sad.

The other I went through my binder where I have stored loose music since college. I tore out every Class B flute solo I had been assigned (we didn’t get to pick pieces for competition in high school; they were assigned to us. I wasn’t good enough for Class A in flute.) I tore out the hated duet I was assigned to play with another flutist from band. I tore out the photocopied pages from my Rubank lesson books. I tore out several other bits of “flute repertoire,” none of which I have any interest in ever working on.

I took the whole stack of music and I threw it in the trash. It was the best thing ever.  Then I took out my Hohner pearwood recorder and the early music book I bought when I was in London on my way home from Cote d’Ivoire and I played recorder for twenty minutes, something I haven’t done for years. It felt good. And to my surprise I had not lost nearly as much in recorder as I had in flute, maybe because I’d always found recorder a joy to play, free of a teacher who seemed like she had decided I simply wasn’t trying.

I have fallen down the rabbit hole of  shopping for factory-made but professional quality wooden recorders.  I’ve pulled out my ancient, musty alto recorder, which my parents got from a traveling evangelism team in Monrovia. I’m re-teaching myself the F-instrument fingerings. And I’m practicing all my old soprano music.  I may be able to buy a new recorder next summer. I feel relaxed and happy about the search for the right instrument and the wait for the right time, instead of sad and angry like I always would when I thought about spending money to repair my flute.

Making music is fun again, now that I’m no longer a flute player.