Ode to Snow

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Brighton Ski Resort, Utah

Winter is a time for contemplation. Everything takes a little longer to do. Food must be warmed, layers must be compiled and worn, windshields and sidewalks must be scraped and shoveled of ice and snow.

Whether you are in the midst of knee-deep snow yourself or whether you only dream of it, I invite you to listen to my new snowy playlist on Spotify while indulging in some wintry reading (sources cited) and photography (all by me) below. Enjoy.

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Laramie, Wyoming

“Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.” -From Mark Strand’s “Lines for Winter”

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Southern Wyoming

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.'” -Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

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American Fork, Utah

“Everything is flowing — going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches… While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood… in Nature’s warm heart.” -John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra 

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Steamboat Springs, Colorado

“One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land…” -From Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man”

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Centennial, Wyoming

“It snowed all week. Wheels and footsteps moved soundlessly on the street, as if the business of living continued secretly behind a pale but impenetrable curtain. In the falling quiet there was no sky or earth, only snow lifting in the wind, frosting the window glass, chilling the rooms, deadening and hushing the city.” -Truman Capote
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Steamboat Ski Resort, Colorado

“A few feathery flakes are scattered widely through the air, and hover downward with uncertain flight, now almost alighting on the earth, now whirled again aloft into remote regions of the atmosphere.” -Nathaniel Hawthorne
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Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming

Love and warm wishes to all from the wintry American West.

Playlist for Fall

Happy Fall, everyone! Leaves are changing, the breeze is suddenly crisp, there are pumpkins lining the front of every grocery store…

My sister Libby, with leaf.

My sister Libby, with leaf.

One way I like to commemorate the new season is with music. Music motivates us. It inspires us. It invokes memories. It helps us fall in love. It makes us want to shop at Anthropologie. (No? That’s just me?) I had a neighbor, back when I was a kid, who always cranked up 80’s music and strapped on knee- and elbow-pads to clean her house. Playing music can help you get through mundane chores like driving or washing the dishes.

That said, I’ve created a little Spotify playlist to commemorate the season. It has a little bit of everything: bluegrass, folk, rock ‘n roll. If you have Spotify, you can access the playlist here. If not, feel free to look up all the songs on YouTube or iTunes; I’ve listed them below.

  1. “Wrecking Ball,” by Gillian Welch – sort of Americana, heavily influenced by traditional American folk tunes. Amazing, very personal lyrics. I’ve been listening to a lot of her lately.
  2. “In the Night,” by Basia Bulat – folk-y too. My little sister Libby and I saw her open for Pickwick at a little music venue in NC. She’s Canadian and known for performing with an autoharp.
  3. “She Moves in Her Own Way,” by The Kooks. You’ve probably heard this song before. It is fun and dance-y!
  4. “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” by Paul Simon. You’ve definitely heard this song before. Never fails to get my toes a-tappin’.
  5. “Easy Come Easy Go,” by Great Lake Swimmers. One of my favorite bands, with a song that makes you want to drive through curvy mountain back-roads with the windows down.
  6. “Down to the River,” by The Duhks. So many Canadians! Some of the verses are in French, which is unexpected and fun in a bluegrass song. Matt put this song on a CD he made me when we first started dating.
  7. “The Fade,” by Megafaun. A great NC band that’s been making music for some time now. Banjo!
  8. “VV,” by The Cave Singers. I love this album! Great band out of Seattle.
  9. “Gardening at Night,” by R.E.M. Probably my favorite band (thanks, Mom)! An oldie, but a goodie. This song reminds me of an article I read about guerrilla gardening, where activist gardeners plant flowers and edible plants in urban areas under cover of darkness. Take that, The Man!
  10. “Let It Ride,” by Ryan Adams & The Cardinals. Ryan Adams hails from NC as well. He is now better known as Mandy Moore’s husband. Bluegrass-influenced, his first albums were released with a band called Whiskeytown.
  11. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” by The Smiths. I know, I know – I pulled it from the 500 Days of Summer soundtrack. So unoriginal. But it’s The Smiths!
  12. “Orpheo Looks Back,” by Andrew Bird. I promise I was listening to this song before Chobani used it in their yogurt commercial! You’ve got to love the female backup vocals, the pizzicato violin in the style of a mandolin or guitar, the nonsensical lyrics…
  13. “Like a Rolling Stone,” by Bob Dylan. One of the few CDs Matt keeps in his car stereo is a Bob Dylan one. We listen to this song and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” a lot while driving to go climbing.
  14. “Lovesong of the Buzzard,” by Iron & Wine. From a great album. This song feels like a good Tumblr profile, or like a pop-up Free People store in a field. Yes?
  15. “Sweet Jane,” by The Velvet Underground. Also from Matt’s first mix. Hmm, I’m sensing a pattern here.
  16. “Domino,” by Van Morrison. It’s hard to make a good playlist without at least one Van Morrison song. Just try listening to this without bopping  your head. Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Feel free to share some of your favorite tunes for Fall in the comments. Get groovin’!

Flashback to Bosnia

I spent a couple weeks of the summer of 2010 in a small town outside of Sarajevo in Bosnia & Herzegovina. I was there with six other college students from the US and Canada through an organization called International Student Volunteers, or ISV. We spent our time volunteering in a national park there near Bobovac (pronounced Boh-boh-vahtz), a historic site.

On our first day, we hiked to Bobovac. The view while recovering

On our first day, we hiked to Bobovac. You can see some of the ruins up & left

We whacked a lot of weeds, built a staircase, installed grills and trash cans – that kind of stuff.

Cooling off in the river at our volunteer site. I'm in the blue t-shirt

Cooling off in the ice-melt river at our volunteer site. I’m in the blue t-shirt

To give you a little background before I dive into this particular story, I started playing violin in the sixth grade, a good eight years behind the prodigies who were already cradling expensive instruments. I carried my factory-made violin in its black plastic case and plucked at its strings until I learned to use the fiberglass bow. I was a second violinist in the high school symphony orchestra my senior year, playing harmonies to Dvorak and Mussorgsky under the first violins. I disliked private lessons where I suffered through hearing every minute mistake I made, every squeak or snap, every missed note. My teacher was very sweet and encouraging, but I simply couldn’t stand hearing myself play. At school, in the midst of an entire orchestra, I wasn’t afraid. My fingers and hands moved the same way; my eyes followed the lines on the page, but I could no longer hear just me – it was a whole wall of complex sounds. The flutes and clarinets fluttered, the cellos swelled with sad vibrato, and the brass filled the gaps with warmth. I was a part of something huge, and no one in the audience cared that I wasn’t a virtuoso.

In case you didn't believe it, me and my violin circa 2006

Me and my violin circa 2006

Flash forward to Bosnia: I’d made the fortuitous mistake of telling our interpreter and guide Dijana that I could play the violin at some point on our bus ride from the Zagreb airport to the cabin in Kraljeva Sutjeska. The next morning we hiked the trail to Bobovac on which we’d be working, and we were told that we’d be attending a concert local schoolchildren in the small town were putting on that night.

Upon seeing children tuning their violins on stage before the show, Dijana immediately informed the teenagers organizing the event that I played violin, and that I should, of course, play for everyone gathered there. “It will be a good experience!” she insisted. “You will remember forever!”

I suddenly found myself backstage with a confused girl’s violin in hand, desperately trying to recall some semblance of melody. At this point, I hadn’t practiced violin in two years. I could remember plenty of piano pieces, but nothing for violin. I considered improvising something, which would probably sound better than anything else, but finally I settled on something fool-proof: “Twinkle, Twinkle.” At the time, I figured even people in Bosnia would recognize the tune, knowing it was a joke. I would embellish it with unnecessary arpeggios (like scales) and trills here and there, and at the end I would take a ridiculous bow. Perfect.

After a few very good performances, I was introduced in Bosnian to the audience. I understood my name, “America,” and something about volunteering. There were only about sixty people there, but that was the whole town, and I was going to be there for two weeks. I stood in front of the microphone and played the children’s song surprisingly well, no truly audible mistakes, and took a silly bow. I handed the violin back to the young girl and sat down next to my fellow volunteers who had tears in their eyes from laughing, which I took to be a good sign.

Me struggling through "Twinkle, Twinkle" as the audience looked on

Me struggling through “Twinkle, Twinkle” as the audience looked on

However, after the show ended, several people approached us and told me through Dijana that I did a terrific job (!), that it was beautiful (!!), and I must be very talented (!!!). People had taken my performance seriously. I became embarrassed, wondering what people thought of how I’d bowed at the end with my arms flailing around, but I began to realize that this was the first time I’d ever performed violin solo in front of a sizable gathering of people, ever. I’d been playing violin for more than eight years and I’d never performed alone, thanks to echoes of Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman swimming through my head.

I’ve given much thought as to why I like to tell this story: it’s embarrassing, it shows I can think on my feet – but with the larger context I’ve given you regarding my past with violins, I think it’s safe to say there’s something else here.

As people, we struggle so much with our hobbies and talents. We struggle with being “good enough” and being “the best.” Will we make the team? Will anyone publish my book? Will they hire me? Will someone buy my painting? We struggle largely because we care greatly about what other people think. But there is so much to be gained from sharing your experience, and sharing your (even if meager) talents. I’ve seen this in helping teenage girls write poems, and in playing violin for a bunch of people whose language I couldn’t speak, and in, I hope, writing this blog. Sure there are people who will say that you’re obviously an amateur, or that you’re not as good as so-and-so. But there are so many people, though perhaps less vocal, who will be affected immensely by what you do share.

As the writer James Baldwin once said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” If those books hadn’t been written, if those authors hadn’t shared their pain and heartbreak with the world, you and James and all the other readers would never know that we are indeed so connected.

So stop doubting, and start sharing! And who knows – maybe, along the way, you’ll find yourself becoming a Joshua Bell too.