Archive | Sunday Salon

Sunday Salon: Seeking the Still, Quiet Voice

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

It’s a lovely, sunshiny morning here in southeast Michigan. I have about an hour to spend before the rest of the family rises, so I brew a cup of tea and park myself at my desk upstairs. I even open the window beside me because I want to hear the birds singing, although I need to wrap a soft scarf around my shoulders because the incoming breeze is still cold.

I was hoping to access a still, quiet voice inside me this morning, but, like so many mornings lately, the terrible din of the outside world has intruded and my still, quiet voice has been drowned out. 

Like many people, I’m increasingly disturbed by the situation in the world.  Our leaders often seem inhumane, lacking in decorum, diplomacy, and democracy. Their actions and ugly rhetoric are an endless piercing screech in my ears.

As someone who believes in the power of art and literature, I had hoped to use whatever small talents I have in those areas to inject small moments of beauty and clarity and thoughtfulness into the world around me.

As someone who believes in the power of compassion and empathy and kindness, I vowed to use those traits every day in my dealings with people on every scale, in hopes that such small acts of goodness could multiply and grow and help to heal this fractured world.

As someone who believes in the lessons of history, I had hoped that at least some of our  leaders would recall the examples of the past, that they would find the courage of their convictions and rise up to resist those outlying forces of evil attempting to usurp our very fabric of government.

And yet those screeching voices silence my efforts and my hopes, make them feel ridiculously ineffectual and send them slamming into oblivion,

John Adams had a simple prescription for a civil nation: “To be good and to do good,” he advised. “It’s all we have to do.” Where is the “good” right now? What “good” are they trying to achieve? What examples do they set for future generations? For now we must teach our children to be not as they are, do not what they do.

More than ever it feels to me as if it’s up to The People – meaning You and Me – to do good ourselves, and insist upon it amongst those who purport to lead. Already, it feels like an endless uphill climb. And already, I am tired.

So more and more I seek the still, quiet voice inside me. I toss the newsmagazine in the nearest trash can, only half read. I switch the television channel from CNN to the latest episode of PBS Masterpiece. I swipe the screen of my iPad clear of Facebook, Twitter, The Washington Post. I try to silence the bitter noise from the outside world. I turn on Mozart piano concertos, Beethoven quintets, Scarlatti sonatas. Even Chopin nocturnes sometimes, although they often make me cry. I lose myself in novels, in memoirs, in poetry. In those voices, I’m able to forget for a while, able to quiet the anxious beating of my heart, quell the angry bile that rises in my throat.

Nancy Peacock, a writer I admire, recently wrote this on her Facebook page:

 “I feel that I am pulling too much out of my gut without replenishing the well. So I am off to write and walk and visit the big rocks at the top of the hill. I am off to watch the turtles in the pond as they vie for basking space on the half-submerged log. I am off to cook some good food and feed my soul in the kitchen. I am off to do research and highlight paragraphs in yellow and read novels.”

Sometimes the traumas and troubles of the world threaten to drain the wells of our creativity. I have been struggling to find ways to restore that flow, to heal those wounds that threaten to destroy the enjoyment of my creative living. I hope to find it in the easy domestic routines of spring days like today, enjoying the sunshine and cool breeze blowing in the window, sipping tea and delving into the pages of a good novel, writing in my journal, copying out favorite passages from books and poetry.

From sitting with the still, quiet voice in my own heart.

 

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: In Search of a Perfect Morning

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

More mornings than I’d like begin long before the crack of dawn, begin with the whimper of a elderly dog  whose bladder won’t wait another moment; begin with the apnea induced snoring of the man I’ve slept beside for over 40 years; begin with my own anxious thoughts rolling ticker-tape fashion through my only half-lucid brain. I’ve heard that disrupted sleep is the curse of middle age, this tendency to waken at ever increasingly early hours, unable to return to sleep. And so I accept and endure, as I do with much of life.

Though not “perfect” by my standards, these early mornings and I have come to an understanding. Usually I ease myself out of bed and creep down the stairs to the kitchen, brew myself a cup of herbal tea, warm my lavender scented heating pad in the microwave, and settle back into bed with a pile of pillows. With the heating pad at my back, a light shawl around my shoulders, and the dog curled up at my side, I take up my book and read. Thus lulled from my anxious thoughts, warmed through and through with hot beverages and comforting heat wraps, many times I will drift off for another hour or two of sleep.

Sometimes I take these early morning wake up calls as a gift. I go full throttle into morning mode and make a short pot of coffee (four cups instead of the usual six), emptying the dishwasher as it brews. Once it’s done, back upstairs I go into my “office” and take up my journal or fire up the computer and write.

When I grouse about having woken early, my friend Christa reminds me that in days of yore it was customary to go to bed at dark  – what else could one do before electric lights, television, or social media? – and then rise during the middle of the night. Creative people especially made remarkable use of those early hours, to write, paint, sculpt, practice the lute (or whatever medieval instrument they favored). Fresh from sleep, undisturbed by the tasks of the day, it was a time when creative energies surged and they made good use of it.

Though there is truth in that, and though I’ve made my peace with these early mornings, they are not my idea of “perfect.” No, the perfect morning is a leisurely wake up at 7 or 8, the stairway to the kitchen illuminated with sunlight. A perfect morning is two cups of coffee and hot buttered toast, carried upstairs on a tray. A perfect morning is me, sitting in the sunny alcove of our upstairs bedroom reading my book, while my husband sits in bed reading the morning news. A perfect morning is 30 minutes of journal writing, a walk around the neighborhood with the dogs, time at my desk with the windows open and birds singing.

Call them rituals or routines, the way we begin each day has a profound impact on the way we carry on with the hours that are left. My persistent early morning wake ups led to the need for new routines, new ways to respond to circumstances that weren’t ideal but were reality. So whether my day begins “perfectly” or not, it begins in a controlled and orderly fashion and in a way that’s meaningful to me.

That’s about as perfect as I can make things in this crazy mixed up world we live in.

 

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: A Room of My Own

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

As I write these words, I’m sitting in a soft chair, upholstered in warm buttercream colored fabric, my legs tucked underneath me, my computer propped on the chair’s wide arm. There is a cup of coffee on the walnut cedar chest beside me, along with piles of books I’ve been reading lately – poetry books and memoir and Zen Buddhism philosophy. A summer breeze shushes through the open window, and it occasionally strikes a chord on the wind chimes, which hang from a strong tree branch outside.

There is a desk in this room, a wide topped writing desk, on which stand pictures of my son as a baby, another of my two dogs nestled side by side, and one more of my mother holding my grandson on her lap. A cup filled with pens, pencils, markers and reading glasses is close to hand. There are two heart shaped paperweights which I sometimes use for their original purpose (propping open the pages of a book) or occasionally as something to hold in my hands while I ponder my next move on the page. More books stand in the corner, books I refer to time and again when I need some inspiration to keep me moving – through writing and through life. I’m careful to keep nothing on this desk that doesn’t pertain to writing – no bills, no to-do lists. All those practical matters are taken care of in the kitchen at a small counter I’ve appropriated as a daily desktop.

This desk belongs to me and to my creative work. So does this room.

We just got home after spending six weeks in a rented vacation home in Florida, a lovely home with a heated pool, a water view, within a stone’s throw of  lovely restaurants, shops, and sunsets on the beach. The weather was warm, the sun shone every day, and I began to see the appeal of leaving midwestern winter winds behind for an annual sojourn in the sunny south.

You wouldn’t think there was anything missing from this scenario, would you? And I feel selfish even suggesting there was. BUT, although there was plenty of time for musing, there was no room of my own, no quiet place to retreat where I could enter into the world of my own thoughts and imaginings.

It was novelist Virginia Woolf who first introduced the idea of a woman needing such a room. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write…” she says.  Of course, she referred not only to the need for space,  but also to the need for time. For most women, writing time comes in fits and snatches – after coming home from a job, feeding children, preparing meals, helping with homework, walking the dog, collecting the laundry, watching a soccer game, paying some bills, putting gas in the car, reading bedtime stories …and on and on and on. Finally, at the end of all this, there is a few minutes to gather thoughts together and put them onto paper – that is, if there is one ounce of energy left.

My child care days are over, and my working life has winnowed down to mostly volunteer activities. I have room and time and space in my life to create.  I am so fortunate to have a sanctuary in my house, a place where I can retreat at any time of day to read, write, meditate, listen to music, or even take a nap underneath the cross-stitched quilt my great-aunt made for me when I got married over 40 years ago. The furnishings are feminine, gentle, and meaningful. The room is on the second floor, it’s bright and quiet, and I’ve set my desk in the corner between two windows so I have an expansive view of the yard and street.

It’s perfect. It’s mine.

A room of my own.

 

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: Resolute

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

“Resolutions are often heavy, self-imposed expectations. Better to open your heart to life’s invitations and opportunities.” – Thomas Moore

To resolve, or not to resolve. That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to determine a list of sure-to-be forgotten promises, or to forgo the whole process altogether in favor of a more spontaneous approach to life in general.

With apologies to The Bard, you can probably tell I’m not fond of New Year’s resolutions.We are already a week into the new year, so perhaps it’s a moot point anyway. This year we are spending the month of January in Florida, renting a home on an island near the Gulf of Mexico.  January is normally synonymous with snow and icy winds, and while the warm Gulf breezes are welcome, they are somewhat disconcerting to this displaced Midwesterner.

So no resolutions. Not even a new calendar.  And anyway, after 60 years I recognize the veracity of Thomas Moore’s assertion: Resolutions are heavy, self-imposed expectations, all too easily cast aside, leaving the resolver feeling guilty and disappointed.

How much better then, to do as he suggests: Open my heart to life’s invitations and opportunities.

If I were to open my heart, what would I invite it?

I would open wide the door to Music: To more time at my piano where the intricate harmonies of Chopin or the joyous and orderly progressions of Mozart might knit the frazzled pieces of my mind.

I would throw open the window sashes to Art: To beautiful paintings and shapely sculptures, to delicate blown glass and vibrant fiber art creations.

I would unlock the portal to the magic of Words: To reading the stack of books piled high on my shelf and stacked next to my bedside table, to learning from authors, to falling into the worlds of others.

I would take every opportunity to Dance, even if it’s most often alone, my dance floor the hardwood surface in the dining room in front of that window I find myself gazing out of so often.

If I were to Resolve – not that I will, mind you, but just saying if I did – I would be Resolute in accepting every invitation life might offer to soak up the sights, sounds, and sensations of ART. It is the medicine my world-weary soul needs. It is the mandate for 2017.

So often we forget our most effective medicines. We get caught up in habits that suck the life from our creative minds. We become confused with all the expectations swirling through our networks of friends, family, and colleagues.

When our resolution fails, we need those doctors, need to soak up the beauty of creativity in any possible way. Especially in these days when the world is fraught with anger and uncertainty, when ugliness in word and deed is strewn before us everywhere, we desperately need to embrace the beautiful intersection of life and art in every possible way.

Going forward into 2017, that’s where my resolution lies. How about you?

 

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: The Magic’s in the Music

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

My neighborhood is all decked out for Christmas, and my own halls are quite proverbially decked as well. I love bringing light and color into the dark days of December. It’s an important way I get into the holiday spirit.

Holiday parties and gatherings are starting to pile up on my calendar. I love catching up with old friends, connecting with family, sharing good food and happy conversation. This is also an important way I get into the holiday spirit.

My checkbook is getting a workout these days. I love making donations during the holidays, sponsoring good causes both large and small. Doing small generous acts is an important way I connect with the holiday spirit.

But the real holiday magic? For me, that comes from only one thing.

Music.

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“There’s a profound sense in which music opens a secret door in time and reaches into the eternal,” writes John O’Donohue in his book Beauty, The Invisible Embrace. When I first read that sentence, it felt as if O’Donohue himself had opened a secret door into my soul and discovered the secret magic music brings to my life.

When you really listen to music, when you allow yourself to enter into it’s particular rhythm and nuance, you can be lifted out of time and place and into another realm, one where beauty and elegance and story and feeling all meld into one. Where precision and tone and harmony and breath come together to create something new and completely organic. When you really listen in this way, with your whole heart, you will be surprised by how it touches your heart, how it finds emotions and memories you had thought long forgotten.

Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes music finds things in your soul you wish would stay hidden. But at the same time, it heals the pain with it’s own sweet, melodious balm. And there are certain times of life when music touches you more deeply than others, evoking more memories, transporting you to different places in time, connecting you with a long line of listeners through the ages. Certainly the holidays are one of those times.

O’Donohue writes: “Perhaps music renews the heart precisely for this reason: it plumbs the gravity of sorrow until it finds the point of submerged light and lightness. Unconsciously, it schools us in a different way to hold the sorrow.” Sometimes, especially during these bleak winter days when the world seems to weigh heavily on my shoulder, I come to music as a way to heal.

It never fails me.

I have played music in some form or other for nearly all of my life. I started playing piano when I was 6 and never stopped. I’ve played in orchestras, sung in choirs. Now I play with a group of wonderful musicians in a handbell ensemble, and you can imagine how busy we are during the Christmas season. (Bells and Christmas are a natural combination, apparently.) We start working on holiday music at our first rehearsal in September, and don’t stop until the last program is over in mid-December.

I have piano books of Christmas arrangements that I started playing over 45 years ago, and I dig them out of the music closet every year without fail. Playing those pieces connects me with Christmas past as surely as Ebenezer’s ghost does- but in a much more pleasant fashion. I remember playing them in the living room of my childhood home while my mother and grandmother were cleaning up the dinner dishes. I remember playing them in my own living room while my son built a fort for his stuffed animals underneath the grand piano. I remember playing them in the house all alone, with no one but my two little dogs to listen. Each time I sit down at the piano and start to play, a lifetime’s worth of memories flow from my heart into my fingertips.

And when I finally push back the piano bench, or step away from the bell tables, or even turn off the speaker on my iPad, I feel a surge of both strength and peace. It’s a feeling of deep soul-satisfaction that like no other.

“The soul is the force of remembrance in us,” O’Donohue says. “It reminds us that we are children of the eternal and that our time on earth is meant to be a pilgrimage of growth and creativity. This is what music does. It evokes a world where that ancient beauty can resonate within us again.”

That is magical indeed.

 

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: Natural Artist

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

 

My living room is bathed in golden light.  Relaxed in my favorite chair, a cup of fresh coffee waiting for my first sip, I am surrounded by the  vibrant colors of autumn. The trees in our backyard are at the peak of color, so bright I want backyard-treeto put on sunglasses. The sky is a blue so sharp, it almost hurts my eyes. The contrast of crimson, gold, and russet leaves outlined against the blue makes a palette any artist would die for. Later on, when I go upstairs to my desk, my window is filled with the outline of orange leaves pasted against the background of azure sky. It’s tough to get any work done with that amazing vista right in front of me.

In Michigan we’ve had an exceedingly beautiful autumn, warmer and drier than most. The leaves have taken their time in changing and maintained their beauty far longer than normal. My morning walks are a feast for the eyes, even here within our neighborhood. When I’m out and about, one of my normal routes takes me through a hilly landscape with a river running beside the road, a landscape so distracting I have to consciously pull my eyes back to the road. Talk about distracted driving – fall foliage is as dangerous as the cell phone!

In autumn, nature is truly a work of art. And though I personally don’t have any natural talent in making visual art, I am grateful to be enriched by the spectacle of this natural art all around me. It’s like living in an art museum and being surrounded by nature’s inspiring palette.

For me this has been a year of looking for refuge, of desperately seeking beauty and inspiration and a sense that -as the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich wrote –  “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”  My pantry of creative ideas feels bare, the river of inspiration runs rocky and dry. Yet the trees outside my window only have to BE and they are beautiful. They stand rooted in their space on earth and allow nature to work it’s artful magic. Then they simply glow with radiance.

Could my own glowing come that easily?

The poet Mary Oliver writes:

I try to remember when time’s measure
painfully chafes, for instance when autumn

flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing
to stay – – – how everything lives, shifting

from one bright vision to another, forever
in these momentary pastures.

Maybe I search too hard for my bright visions. Maybe all I need to do it is live in the momentary pasture of autumn and the bright visions of life will find their way to my feet. Life offers so much inspiration all around, free and easy for the taking if we open our eyes and hearts to it.

Like the leaves that fall in a sea of color all around me. Naturally beautiful. Naturally inspiring. Naturally art.

 

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: Silences

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

The world is such a noisy place, isn’t it?

We’re bombarded with videos, photos, articles, in-depth news reports, texts, tweets, snap-chats…

cellphone-and-computerIt all vies for our attention round the clock: That nagging urge to “check in” on social media and see what our friends are up to; the itch to snap a photo of the leaves changing color on our favorite tree; the siren call of a friends text message. Add to that the dire and sometimes terrifying news reports of shootings and war and climate devastation, with election news like bad frosting on an overdone cake.

It’s not a pretty picture.

About a month ago, I found myself craving silence, and craving it badly. I realized I had settled into a compulsion – no, let’s call it straight, it was an addiction – to my electronic devices. I literally could not pass my phone without picking it up and scrolling through Facebook and Twitter feeds. I was completely unable to stand in line at the grocery store, wait in a waiting room, or yes, I confess, sit at a red light without whipping the phone out of my purse and looking at email. I stopped short of texting while driving, but only barely.

My real life was suffering too. I was having trouble focusing on one activity at a time, starting projects and then leaving them unfinished while I drifted off to something else (like looking at Facebook). I’d find myself always short on time, running late, rushing from here to there because I’d wasted more time than I realized on the internet. I couldn’t concentrate on whatever book I happened to be reading, having to go back and read paragraphs over several times to comprehend them. I was way behind on my Goodreads reading challenge.

Part of this behavior I blame on the grief process. Still missing my mom, I was looking for ways to combat the loneliness. Suddenly I had a lot more time on my hands, time I used to spend with her. I needed to fill it by connecting with other people and the outside world, needed to find a way to extract myself from the quicksand of mourning I felt like I was drowning in. The internet was a quick and easy distraction. It passed the time, helped me forget my loss for a while, and gave me a way of connecting with friends and family through social media.

But suddenly it just became overwhelming, the way the internet was constantly clamoring for my attention. I needed peace. I needed quiet. I tried to remember – what was life like before the internet? For the vast majority of my sixty years on earth, the concept of cyber connection would have been the stuff of a science fiction story. What did I do with myself all those years without it? I began to yearn for those simpler, quieter days, when the only electronic distractions were radios and televisions, and those with only a few channels!

Quitting the internet cold turkey was a frightening proposition, but I contemplated doing it. Still, there are so many good things about the internet, so many positive ways to benefit from it, I couldn’t bring myself to let go of all that. But limits must be enforced, and enforced strictly. I made a deal with myself, allowed myself three times a day to use the internet for social media and web surfing – at breakfast, just before dinner, and about 8:00 at night. I “unfollowed” a lot of the most prolific news and political sites.

I removed all the social media apps from my phone.

Gulp.

book-690763_1280The first few days were hard, but not as hard as I’d thought. I keep a book on the kitchen counter where the iPad usually sits, and when I’m tempted to go online I pick up the book and read a few pages instead. (I’m now back on track with my Goodreads challenge, too.) There’s a good audio book in my car that helps pass the driving time.  I went away on a solo vacation for a few days during the second week, and thoroughly enjoyed watching people and scenery instead of losing myself in the wilds of social media.

The constant brain frenzy has abated, there seems to be plenty of time to cook, shop, write, practice piano, read, play with the dogs.

If I haven’t totally silenced the noisy world, I’ve at least muted it to a dull manageable roar.

The internet is a marvelous tool for learning, for connecting with people, for conducting business, and it’s here to stay. But like anything else so powerful, it’s easy to abuse. Neuroscience hasn’t even scratched the surface of the effect internet use (or overuse) has on our brains. But I know from recent experience that my old brain works better with more moderate doses of cyber activity.

How about you? Do you ever feel the need to limit your internet use? How has using the internet affected other areas of your creative life?

 

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking her dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: Reading Between the Lines

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

I grew up in a home with two Southern cooks. My grandmother lived with us for most of my childhood, and since she was raised on a small farm in central Kentucky, I was fortunate enough to eat authentic Kentucky Fried Chicken from the time I was old enough to chew. Not to mention angel biscuits, southern fried okra, homemade fruit and cream pies, and – the piece de resistance in my mind – her warm, yeasty bread with its crisp buttery crust. Paired with a platter of garden fresh tomatoes, warm slow-cooked green beans, and a glass of iced tea, we feasted for many a summer lunch.

I-love-cooking-free-license-CC0-980x652My mother insisted she could not cook as well as her own mother did, but most of us begged to differ. My mom’s specialties weren’t the country cooking my grandmother learned in the farm kitchen. My mom excelled at dishes with a slightly international flair -like spaghetti and lasagna, Swedish meatballs, quiche lorraine. She was the chief cake baker in the family, and her German chocolate cake with caramel frosting was the most requested dessert at every family potluck.

Last winter, when we knew my mother was dying, it occurred to us just how many of our favorite foods we’d never taste again. My husband and I would be sitting at the table, picking at our food between trips to the hospital. “Cheese cake,” I said once. “We’ll never have her cheese cake again.”

“Or beef pot pies,” he said dejectedly. “Or baked spaghetti.”

“Potato salad,” I yelped.

“Ohhhh,” he groaned.

Should this sound less than respectful toward my mother’s final days, rest assured there is little she would rather be remembered for. She considered her cooking one of her proudest accomplishments, one the world recognized and rewarded. One year her neighbors gifted her with pearl handled cake server, engraved with her name and the words “Redford’s Best Baker.” She prized that just as much as her diamond rings and full length mink coat.

One of my projects this summer has been an attempt to replicate some of my mother’s most popular recipes.  I’m really not the cook my mother was (and no one in my family would beg to differ on that assertion), so it’s been a daunting task, and one I’ve met with varying degrees of success.

There’s an old saying: If you can read, you can cook. Meaning, if you can follow the recipe, you can expect an edible finished product. I’m here to tell you, that’s not quite so. I’ve followed my mother’s spaghetti sauce recipe to the letter, and it still doesn’t taste exactly right. And while many people have attempted the caramel frosting, no one has ever made it successfully. She was often accused of sabotaging the recipe, which she always denied. “It takes time and patience to get that right,” she’d say with a little smile. “Just keep practicing.”

Often there is a secret ingredient to the best dishes, one that you don’t find listed in the lines of the recipe.  Part of it’s the kind of wisdom we gain by watching someone work, and I will always regret not spending more time in the kitchen with my mother, soaking up some of her knowledge about bringing a recipe to life.

But more than that, there is a certain creative something only a few people possess, and it’s not something you can study or read or even be taught. In my handbell ensemble we talk about this very quality – in fact, it’s our (legal!) trademark. “Ringing in Color,” we call it, and it means taking the black and white notes of music and bringing them into vivid color with various creative touches – dynamic changes, movement, the particular lift of a musical line. Thus the finished product is made up of more than just following the music notes on the staff, more than just putting the ingredients in the recipe in a bowl and stirring them up.

My mother had that special quality, and she seasoned her cooking with it as well as the rest of our home. She was the kind who could arrange a vase of flowers just so, wrap a package so beautifully no one wanted to undo it, place a picture on the perfect wall to show it off to its best advantage. She knew exactly how to put things together  – from clothes to jewelry to home furnishings – so it looked stylish and elegant. If I were to suggest that she was being “creative,” she would laugh. “That’s nothing,” she’s say. “You’re the creative one with your book writing and your music.”

I believe each one of us has a unique creative gift, an ability to bring an extra touch of beauty to life. Yours might be in painting or sculpture, writing or music, sewing or crafting, cooking or gardening. Discovering that individual gift is one of life’s great adventures, and why it’s important of offer children the opportunity to participate in all kinds of activities. We learn by doing, by putting our hand to something, by feeling our way through the black and white instructions and uncovering our inherent ability to add the “color” that makes it come alive.

I nearly wept for joy the first time I made potato salad and it tasted exactly like my mother’s. I wonder if it’s because there was no written recipe, and I had to go purely on instinct and “feel.” Sometimes we can become so caught up in those black and white instructions we forget to trust our own creative instincts. So I’ll keep working on the spaghetti sauce. Maybe I should trust my inner wisdom and stop trying to follow the recipe so exactly.

If I’m really lucky, I may discover that I’ve inherited some of that kitchen creativity after all.

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: Wearing All the Hats

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

 

A few years ago the small office I worked in went through a period of transition and downsizing. Those of us who had been around for a while were asked to take on more responsibilities to fill in the gaps. In particular, one of my colleagues seemed to end up with a task in every department, from marketing to IT, from human relations to account collection.  We kidded her about all the “hats” she wore around the office; for Christmas that year I bought her a box full of hats, each labeled with a company business card denoting her varied positions.

young-girl-walking-in-croatian-city-rovinj-picjumbo-comShe was philosophical about the whole thing, and though sometimes I’m sure it was extremely stressful, juggling all those different roles and responsibilities, she eventually developed the skills she acquired into a much better position at a larger company.

Truthfully, we all wear a multitude of hats in our daily lives. For people who embrace their creative natures, sometimes the roles we’re required to play might seem restrictive – we may even feel stifled and frustrated, trapped in tasks that seem completely opposite of the work we’ve been “called” to do. But if we look closely, there may be ways to express that side of ourselves, even amidst those roles that seem far from creative.

Connor and me disney 2015This week, I’m primarily wearing my Grandmother hat. It’s one I’m thrilled to have in my collection, and each summer when my son and his family come to visit, I plan my days around them. It means a lot of walks in the park, coloring, playing board games. It’s time spent in visits to museums and plays and the pool. There’s little time for writing or reading (anything other than The Berenstain Bears or Frog and Toad that is!)

Still, I feel as if there is creative living inherent in all the things we do together. Instead of sitting at my desk, I’m outside in nature, exploring the world with a little person who sees everything with eyes of wonder and delight. Instead of writing chapters in a novel, I’m helping Connor make up stories about Ping Ping the bear and his friends Harvey and Duffy. Instead of practicing accompaniments, I’m playing and singing “Everybody Loves Saturday Night” or “This Train is Bound for Glory” while my grandson keeps time on the tupperware container that has been repurposed as a drum. All the while, I’m trying to capture these special moments in photographs I can use to create our annual Michigan Trip picture book that tells the story of each year’s vacation – a creative project I’ve been doing each year after the visit is over.

This is creative living, Grandma style.

flowers-871685_1920Most of us aren’t lucky enough to spend our days totally immersed in our creative endeavors, but it might be possible to wear a creative hat during parts of your day, no matter what it involves.  Maybe it’s as simple as arranging fresh flowers in a vase on your desk at work, or setting the table for supper with different pieces of tableware found at resale shops and estate sales. Maybe it’s listening to classical music while you input data on your computer, or taking 15 or 20 minutes out of your lunch hour to write in a journal or capture some photographs or sketches around the office.

Here in the Sunday Salon, I write about the intersection of art and daily living – the way literature and music and art enhance my ordinary moments and invite me to live a more fulfilling life.  My roles as a writer and a musician are important ones in the creative life I try to live. But caring for the people I love is an important role for me too. It’s one that is fulfilling in an entirely different way, and is even more so when I recognize the way I can bring my own creative gifts to bear within it.

It’s a hat that fits me quite comfortably, and I hope to wear it well for as long as possible.

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_connor_bio1Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. This week she’s busy being a grandmother – making cookies, reading stories, and going for walks in the park with her four-year old grandson, Connor. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: Let Freedom Ring

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning here in Michigan on this American holiday weekend. We’re celebrating our nation’s birthday with picnics, fireworks, pool parties, and sailing on the lake.

But I want to interrupt the festivities and get serious for a moment.

bigstock-Us-Constitution-We-The-Peopl-19624112One of the most important freedoms we celebrate today is freedom of speech, or freedom of information. We live in a time when more information is available in more forms that at any other time in the 225 year history of this country. Day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, we are bombarded with information. Between e-mails and cell phones and texts and internet and 24-hour international news cycles, it is always available, and it never ends.

Our TV’s and computers bring us real-time images of murders, bombings, natural disasters, as they occur from every corner of the globe, all broadcast on our huge high-definition screens. We hear the cries and screams of those affected directly in our ears through digitally enhanced audio headphones. If we can’t take it anymore, we can always change the channel, but still run the risk of a popular show or movie featuring it’s own murder and mayhem.

Sometimes, like a cranky preschooler, I want to clamp my hands over my ears and scream, BE QUIET!

It’s true:  horrible things do happen in the world. It’s also true that if we are to be good citizens of the world, we need to be cognizant of them.

But I wonder.

What would happen if we tried to reframe the message? What would happen if we countered every story about violence and disaster and hate with another story about peace and compassion?  Can our creative work be about highlighting our shared stories instead of glamorizing our differences?

I wonder.

What would happen if more of the messages we released into the world on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram were messages of truth, empathy, beauty, caring? What if we used our social media feeds as a tool to incite hope, generosity, and empathy, instead of to spread anger, irritation, and sarcasm?

I wonder.

I believe words matter. I believe images matter. I believe music matters. I believe all of these things frame opinion and thought in mysterious ways we can barely explain. Because in this 21st century, the Media really does carry The Message.

The Sunday Salon is a place where I contemplate the intersection of life and art. I believe our mandate as artists in this information age is to use our creative intelligence and ability to promote good – to advocate healing and acceptance and understanding and wisdom. To reflect beauty, invite contemplation, and offer common ground.

Creative friends, we have awesome power, with untold avenues and opportunities to put a message into the world, to plant seeds of change. In the United States, we have amazing freedoms with which to do that.

Use that freedom wisely and well.

Let it ring out all over the world.

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

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