Author Archives: Janet Grace Riehl

This I Believe: The Power of Mystery

Image and essay by Janet Grace Riehl, copyright 2014

The Power of Mystery

Something’s happening. We can feel it. From the furthest reaches of the galaxy to a sub-atomic particle. That something is the constant, organic, mysterious change known as life.

And it’s happening faster. So we’d better get used to it,  and we’d better get good at it if we want to survive as a species and a planet. The big bang has come home. The bumper sticker “Think globally, act locally” might be expanded to: “Think galactically, act molecularly.” From protozoa to protean space explorations life is on the move. The times call for us all to become creators—to cooperate with the larger mystery and to co-create our lives in concert with something so vast and so deep we can never encompass it. We can only learn to be held and enfolded by it.

Transition has its seasons of darkness, shadow, and pain. We honor that. Life takes time with unexpected turns. We honor that. And in honoring that, strangely, burdens lighten. Then the meandering path through change yields rather than greets us with roadblocks.

The pace of change explodes as life reorganizes itself for the next mega-cycle. We are being made ready. Because ready or not, here it comes.

Luckily, we’ve been given longer lives. With this longer span of productivity comes the luxurious necessity of giving ourselves time to regroup. During the in-between times we prepare for the next act. The intermission and the entire act become a creative space. There’s time to digest information taken in during the first act, time to stretch, get a cup of coffee, and greet friends while we feel around on the inside to glimpse who we are in this moment as we prepare for the next ones.

So let’s get good at transition.

Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity—serendipitous coincidences—is part of the mystery. Reading these synchronous events is one of the skills in transition. Ordinary living becomes a source of magic with many messages. Things as simple as fortune cookies and the daily horoscope hint at our heart’s desire if we are open. Everything becomes an oracle to lead and protect us. We come to realize that we are surrounded by signs, symbols, and portents. We ourselves are ciphers in the eye of the sacred storm.

There is choice within destiny. Sometimes destiny speaks in a thunderous voice and we know we are being chosen rather than doing the choosing. Events come into our lives that beg to be used, and that beg to use us. And, sometimes, destiny speaks in an off-stage whisper.

In order to slip and dive through transition we must improvise. We must learn to live as a jazz artist plays, as a great chef cooks, as great lovers exchange pleasure.

The map of mystery limns the Terra Incognita beyond the edge of the world. If only we can appreciate and cooperate with the mystery without getting lost in it!

Welcome to my village: the power of small gestures

By Janet Grace Riehl green handEssay and image copyright 2014

Mine is a life composed of small gestures.  The days of sweeping projects are gone, or at least on pause. If I’m not dreaming big, and thinking big.     If I’m not out there Being Somebody and changing the world, is that okay?

 

Back on our home place on the bluffs of the Mississippi I kneel at my father’s feet to take off his socks, roll up the legs of his pants, and bring the warm bucket of water to soak his feet. We have known each other all our lives. My brother is the only person still alive who has. Now 65 years in I watch him fade towards death. He is so fragile, and so smart that he knows just how fragile he is. I am his youngest and will always be so. Will he leave us before his 99th birthday next November? It hardly seems possible that he can. And, it hardly seems possible that he won’t. I’m happy with the small gestures in caring for my father: the jokes and hugs amongst the rounds of medicine, breathing treatments, meals, and putting on those damn compression socks after we soak his feet.

 But, Pop! Why can’t you be happy with a life of small gestures? With so many books published and so many significant things accomplished, could we cool it with the projects already? Just leave me in my land of small gestures.

Back in the city I roam a neighborhood that has become my village. Villages value small gestures. Public space becomes intimate place when the world becomes your village. I live in one of the most beautiful places in St. Louis—the Central West End. It’s near Forest Park (the site of the 1904 World’s Fair) and the Chase Park Plaza, an icon of elegance built in the 1920s. Historic houses and tree-lined streets. Lots of places to spend your money.  I keep my money in my pocket while soaking it all in.

I greet everyone who looks as if they want to be greeted. In villages all over the world, we do that. I believe that greeting—a nod of the head, a smile, a ‘morning, a casual pleasantry or banter in passing, even a brief conversation about that cute little dog straining on the leash—makes for a safe neighborhood as much as a watch group.

A village is a place where we affirm our oneness and acknowledge our differences. A village is a place where we exchange the generous impulse to share ourselves with others—to connect. Public space yields up its intimacy as I greet the street sweepers and they reply, “Keep on rockin’ that hat!” “It’s spring!” I say. And they agree, “Yes!” The hat in question is a “Janet Special” bought from a thrift shop, and then trimmed with a hot pink velvet ribbon held together with a gold paperclip posing as a buckle.

At the side door of the Chase Park Plaza the doorman gives me a hand jive lesson (we’ve invented some of our own).  I pass the flower arrangement in the middle of the black and white marble floor to greet the concierge from Barcelona in Spanish. Then down the stairs to my health club where the receptionist—a young man who coaches a soccer team—greets me.

“Good morning, Miss Janet.”

“Good morning, Mr. A. J. Did you win last night? Are you up to ten, now?”

Later at the upstairs coffee lounge I meet the executive pastry chef who hails from Nigeria. He imparts a surprise benediction on my day as he shares his wisdom to me, his newfound friend, who he may never see again.

The lilt of West Africa wafts over me. “We must give thanks everyday to God—or whatever we believe in. It’s good for our souls.” He understands about village, and his words stay with me.

Yes, my life is composed of small gestures that earn my keep in the world. By turns I’m an honorary auntie, a mentor in passing, a tour guide, a teacher, a problem-solver, a friend. I pour tea and break out my really good chocolate before drawing mind maps on newsprint spread over the floor. I listen to my friend and bring all my consulting experience to bear. The stuff I used to get paid big bucks for I now give freely. It’s no less valuable for it. In the midst of a family heavily populated with super-high achievers (a world class physicist, a nationally influential lawyer in mortgage lending) it’s hard not to compare.

Yet, I relax into my world of small gestures knowing that out of these I’ve created a life worth living. Out of these I’ve become a woman in my prime with time to just be.

Janet Grace Riehl is a down home country girl who roamed the world and then came home. Her blog magazine is Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century. Become a Riehlife.com Villager.

 

 

Daddy Care: He labors in the grove of service

 

Janet and Pop

 

Pop leans back in his green lazy boy, a spoon of oatmeal balanced on the blue
Wedgwood bowl. His eyes drift to the cardinals flitting around the feeder slung from the Magnolia tree. The world is covered with ice.

“What the weather like today?” he asks.

“We didn’t get the deluge of snow they predicted but no one will be able to get up our hill. I’ve cancelled Hospice and your caregivers for the next two days. We should get a good melt by Wednesday.”

His face softens, and his head drops. Air puffs from his lips, and the oxygen hums.

“Don’t go to sleep on me, now.” I lean forward to place my hand on his knee.

He starts awake, and looks down at his oatmeal.

“What are thinking about?”

“A time I tried to help someone and it all went wrong.”

“Ah. Yes, I can think of a few of those times, too. You’ve dedicated your life to service anyway you cut it. The army is called the service. You served your family. You kept expanding the definition of your extended family. Anything we do a lot is bound to have some real humdingers.”

I go to the front room to fetch my book “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary”  from the shelves filled with family books. Grandma Annie’s “On the Heights.” Great Uncle Frank’s “Runes of the Red Race” and “Poems of the Piasa.” Bunches of books Pop wrote.

I go back to the table and I open the book to the poem “Treasure Chest” in the section about my father. 

 He labors in the grove of service.

Remembers flat tires, repaired.

Loans proffered for crises.

Then his somber face glows

with the light of a thousand-watt angel.

I look up at him to say, “That’s my father.”

 Memories of good turns returned

is a treasure he counts with care.

His treasure chest

of good deed stories is a full one.

 Bureaucratic stupidity

circumvented to better humanity.

If there is a fetching young woman

in the story charmed

with his wit, courtesy, and good sense,

why then, all the better.

“That’s my father,” I tell him.

 War stories as WWII platoon sergeant

overflow a section of his treasure chest.

Sure, my father earned a Silver Star for heroism in battle.

A Purple Heart commemorates his war wounds.

But memories of gratitude

from men he trained mean most to him.

 His eyes, slightly filmy from cataracts, mist over

as he tells battlefield stories not shown in movies.

Lying in a base hospital bed,

recuperating from shrapnel wounds and gangrene,

Pop met a man he trained.

“Sergeant Thompson,

I’m alive today

because of the things you made me learn.”

A buddy shivered next to my Dad in a foxhole.

“Tiger,

when I’m in a foxhole with you,

I feel safe.”

“You’re crazy!”

But, Christ! That’s really saying something.

Shells whizzing over-head and grenades exploding.

How could anyone possibly feel safe?

 Men in the barracks

brought in a local French girl to have some fun.

She needed money and food for her family.

These GIs could provide both.

They passed her from bunk to bunk

until morning came.

Then these men were stricken

with amnesia and sudden blindness.

She needed to get off the post fast.

My father, not part of the evening’s fun,

escorted her to safety

as if ushering his dance partner

to the edge of the floor

when the music stops.

Quiet sits between us when I finish reading.

“That’s from your poetry book?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a good one.”

“And that’s you, Pop, as close as I can get it.”

“Yup.”

He raises his spoon, and eats his oatmeal.

_____________

Janet Grace Riehl is the author of “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary,” and the audiobook “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.”  You can read more stories by and about her family Erwin A. Thompson at her blog Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century. Just use the search box and an amazing archive will pop up to keep you entertained all Sunday afternoon.

Hyacinth Hope

Hyacinth HopeImages and essay by Janet Grace Riehl 

Hope sits quietly.

So pregnant with potential.

Clearly ready to open fully at any second. 

 –Said a friend who would cringe to be thought a poet

 

Pop (over the phone): “What are you doing?”

Janet: “Watching my hyacinths grow.”

My mother raised flowers galore. If she was going to grow a day lily, why not 500 varieties? While she’s at it, why not map out each color and kind on graph paper and then plant the beds like a Monet painting? Why not stake them as if in an arboretum and then move them around to improve the real life painting? Her only problem was that being equipped with only three children and one husband she was short-staffed

I knew firsthand the price of those glorious garden paintings, and never grew flowers—inside or out. Then, by chance I found that if I kept my garden on a tiny scale I could be an avid gardener too.

I wheeled my cart past hyacinths in the store—blooming and pricey. The wafting scent stayed with me even when I unloaded the groceries in my father’s kitchen.  A field trip was in order to White’s Greenhouse on the other hill. I went to school with Jim. He started his business in 1976, and now its annual revenue exceeds $5 million. Yet, it’s still an unassuming family business. I stepped inside the greenhouse late in the day.

“Do you have hyacinths yet?”

“None blooming.”

“That’s okay. I’d rather grow them from the bulbs.”

She took me over to a cluster of pots with green spears just poking up through the dirt.

“We have pink and blue. What would you like?”

I chose blue and left with three pots—each filled with three plants—all for less than $25. Back at my father’s I soaked them, and left them in the cardboard flat they came in. They rested on my floor of my upstairs bedroom with indirect light so they wouldn’t come on too fast.

1 Hyacinths pushing up

I went back to my place in St. Louis for a few days. When I came back, I saw humps of dirt displaced by the energetic plants bursting upwards. This time when I packed to go back to the city I took them with me in a white oval enamel wash pan I grabbed from our back porch.  Back in my apartment I placed them by my picture window where I could keep a good eye on them.

I’d only known gardening as hard work—without the joy. But in my secret garden I was surprised by joy as I watched the little plants poke through the dirt and grow all the way to blooming. Each morning they amazed me with another upward bound. I put giant paper clips in the pots to measure their progress—like marking a child’s height in pencil on a wall. Over the next weeks more plants poked up their heads. I didn’t have 9 plants. I had 15.

2 hyacynth collage growing

I carried my hyacinths back and forth from my place in the city to Pop’s place in the country and back again and again in the white enamel pan. They proved to be good companions. Amid the blizzards and unusual chill they testified to the humbleness of the life force around us and in us. They proclaimed hope for all that is green, and good, and glorious.

3 hyacinth collage little to bloom

Yesterday I decided to transplant them. I carefully trod down the icy back steps at my father’s around the corner to our potting basement down limestone steps. I ducked through the doorway and squinted in the dim light to locate a bucket of soil and clay pots. The  plastic bag of perlite fell apart in my hands and the white beads piled on the dirt floor. I scooped up what I needed and left the clean-up for a warmer day. As I got deeper into the narrow basement in search of clay pots I found that the spiders had been busy. Along with the pots and dirt I left covered with cobwebs.

I lined the sink with newspaper and set to my task—using less than a model technique. I was definitely out of practice. But, with some gravel for drainage and some dirt and potting soil mixed with perlite, I ended up with 15 plants in 10 pots. Some of the plants came from offshoots of the same bulb; I let these be.

4 hyacinth collage blooming

Then, on to the great give-away: to my niece, one of my father’s caregivers, a friend in the city. And some for me to keep in the white enamel pan on top of the walnut chest my father made so many years ago.

Pop (over the phone): “What are you doing?”

Janet: “My hyacinths bloomed, Daddy. But I’m still watching them grow.”

S-l-o-w living is so good for the soul.

P. S. Check out Chris Bradley’s January post “Surprised by Hope.”  She gave us two writing prompts:

1) What reminds you to be hopeful?

2) Have you been physically comforted by nature?

_______________

Janet Riehl is an artist, writer, storyteller and glad when joy finds her.  You can learn more about her work at Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century. Creating connections through the arts and across cultures.

Daddy Care: Chatting about death as we were…

 

Pop playing violin

Photo and Essay by Janet Grace Riehl

Excerpt from “King’s Sake” From “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary”

By Janet Grace Riehl

For my father, Erwin A. Thompson

The Old King is dying, and he knows it. 

The Old Ways are dying, and he knows it.

 The Old Music is dying, even as he plays it.

***

The only thing he’ll die of is old age.

Or, maybe old age and a broken heart that keeps on breaking.

The Old King is dying. Long live the King!

*****   ****    ****    ****

 Chatting About Death As We Were….

“Grace, shall we put the kettle on?” It’s the night before my 65th birthday and we’re celebrating with a friend nearing 90. After a yummy dinner out, we’re ready to snuggle in front of the fire, eat sweets, and open presents.  Then the call comes. Pop has taken a bad turn. Daniel and I hug Grace good-bye, head for the car, and arrive back at Pop’s in 30 minutes—record time.  I walk in the door, kick off my shoes, drop my coat and purse in an easy chair, and quickly move into his bedroom.  Virginia, a long-time family friend, has come over from the other hill to stay with my father. She’s a nurse, and tells me how my father came near choking to death.

“I’m miserable. I feel like dying. My back hurts so much.” Coming from my father these words have additional force. He’s not a man who likes to admit any kind of weakness.  We plug in the electric massager. I’m trying to do it one-handed while calling my brother when Virginia sensibly takes over. He leans back to rest. I call the Hospice night duty nurse. Fortunately we know the woman on call. Kim has met my father and like many a gal before her has fallen under his charm. It’s hard not to. When he wants to pour it on, it flows like a river. Pop gets on the phone. “Honey, I’m just fine. There’s no need to you to come out. I’d hate to bother you.” Virginia and I roll our eyes; we know this one so well.  Then, because he hasn’t coughed for awhile, she goes home.  It’s just Daniel, Pop, and me.

“What can I do to help?”

“The best thing is for you to get some sleep. This may be a long night, and at least one of us ought to be rested.”

Now it’s just Pop and me. He can’t get comfortable no matter how he tries—as a woman might in hard labor. He lurches from the bed he usually sleeps in to the nearby hospital bed we have at the ready. Then he rocks at the edge of the bed. As he lurches from bed to bed I spot him as if he were jumping on a trampoline. He repeats over and over the refrain: “I’m miserable. I feel like dying. My back hurts so much.”

I settle him on the hospital bed long enough to use the electric massager and knead him with my hands. Eventually he calms, and curls up to sleep.

Upstairs I change from my black velvet sheath into flannel pajamas. When I go back down, I sleep across the room from him. As I listen to his raspy breathing I imagine that it must be something like being with a baby in a nursery. When his breathing evens, I go upstairs to cuddle with Daniel in my bed. At 1 a.m. Daniel says, “I hear your father. He’s up.”

When I get to him, he’s on the toilet. I sit on the bathtub, and we chat about what’s happened. I need to change his clothes, but before I can get the clean set on, he staggers forward. “Don’t worry about that. I just want to get back to bed.” I support him as he walks the three yards before he dives into bed. This is not my father. Despite my father’s difficulty in getting around he has remained graceful and in touch with his body.  I rush forward to straighten him out. He can’t lift his legs. I lift them for him and pivot them onto the bed. I’ve never seen him so weak. I call the hospice nurse back. She’ll be here in 40 minutes.

The quiet darkness is strangely comforting and strengthening. “My mind is clear. I am just having trouble.” There’s a lag time between thought and speaking. Just as he doesn’t have control of his body, he doesn’t have complete control of his language. He scans his body.

“My right foot hurts. I can’t feel my toe.” I rub my hands together like fire sticks so that my warmth can seep into his foot. “Is that better?” It is, but now his hip hurts. I move to the other side of the bed and lift his hip so I can find the tight muscle. “Better?”

Yes, and now his hand hurts. I come back again to clasp his hand.  “I’m here, Pop. I’ve got your hand.”

“And, I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you do have my hand. You are my lovebird, my 24-hour girl. I love you.” Goodness gracious. My father is old-school. I’ve heard him say, “I love you” maybe 5 times in my life. In our family love is unspoken. If you don’t know you’re loved, then you are some kind of stupid. How could you not know? Still, it’s nice to hear. Is he talking to me or to my late mother, though? No matter, I am here. I’ll take it.

“Just think, Pop, it’s officially my birthday. You and mother had quite a go of it 65 years ago getting me born.”

“Yes, that was a good thing.”

The Hospice nurse arrives around 2:30. I meet her at the door. I’m so glad it’s Kim. She’s warm, matter-of-fact, calm, and totally has Daddy’s number.

“How are you Mr. Thompson? I heard you had a little adventure.”

“Honey, now that you’re here, I’m just fine.”

“Are you feeling pain anywhere?”

“No. How could anyone feel pain with a pretty nurse beside him?”

Kim looks over at me, and we do the eye-roll, shake our heads, and suppress a giggle. She checks his blood pressure, oxygen, heartbeat, and respiration. His hands are grey and waxy, but it looks like he’ll make it yet again. She’s there for over an hour. When he seems stable, she gets up to leave.

“Good-bye, Mr. Thompson. I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“I need my hug. That’s the best medicine.” He gets a pretty good one. It’s not easy to leave my father. He keeps talking and talking. Finally I say, “Kim, you’re just going to have to go.” I walk her back to the door. He’s still talking when I get back.

“Janet, I hurt so much before. But now it’s like nothing ever happened. Everything’s alright.”

“It’s like a moment of perfect peace. No matter what happens, you’ll be alright.”

“Yes.” He drops off, and begins to snore softly.

At 4 I make my way upstairs for another round of sleep. When I wake at 7 and pad downstairs, he’s still sleeping. I hang out in the other bed until he opens his eyes and gets ready for the bathroom trek. Like last night I support him there and back. He is too weak to raise himself on the handles of the walker. Once again I lift his legs and pivot him back into bed. Later I bring in his morning medicine, and prop him up while he takes it.

“Janet, let me tell you about the good thing that happened last night.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“I stopped hurting. I felt that everything would be alright.”

“Yes, it was a moment of perfect peace, wasn’t it? Even if you would have died then, you’d have been fine.”

“Yes.”

When he wakes again around 11 he says, “Well, I’ve been lying around here long enough. Time to get up.” And, so he does. I help him dress, and lever himself up to the walker. Like a turtle on drugs he creeps towards his recliner. He makes it! We swing into the morning routine: breakfast, foot soaking, and so on. He stays up until 4.

“Why don’t you go to bed, Daddy?”

“I was just thinking about that.”

I help him get ready for bed, and then read him a bedtime story from one of the Westerns he wrote when we were children. “That’s it for tonight. We’ll take up the story tomorrow night where we left off.”

“Janet, let me tell you about a good thing that happened last night.”

And he does.

Taking the Creative Pledge: “I’ll show up to do the work.”

Juan Huey-Ray and Leon Burke at Shivers Fund Finale

Juan Huey-Ray and Leon Burke at Shivers Fund Finale 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking the Creative Pledge: “I’ll show up to do the work.”

Essay and Photo by Janet Riehl, copyright 2013

This is the fifth anniversary of my Creative Catalyst column which started in November 2008 when Telling Her Stories was launched. This is my 62rd post. A life filled with creative practice is sustained over time. This column has been an anchor in that practice during turbulent times. By posting a column each month I’ve built a body of work.

A theme threading through the collected posts is that there is no art without craft. From that first post in 2008 through March 2012 I worked in cycles—nine cycles in all—each post exploring a given topic. The first cycle examined “What is creativity anyway?”  How to build a creative practice,  and  working from source in your creative practice.

This end-of-the-year column continues to affirm that “Art is good, but craft will see you through.” Our muse comes when we’re at work. The trick then, is to keep ourselves at work, as happily as possible–to keep moving even when our brains or our lives seem paused. Not a week passes that I don’t see living examples of the synthesis of art and craft. Look around and I’m sure you’ll see it, too.

My simple definition of creativity is this: “Uniting heart, hands, and head to make or do something of value to yourself and quite possibly the wider world.”

My complete definition of creativity is: “Nurturing and directing the raw life force within us to do or make something that matters to you and the wider world. Showing up consistently to do the work.”

And work it is. For writers there are those dratted drafts. For performing artists—actors, dancers, and musicians—there are rehearsals that culminate in something fleeting.

I just returned from Colorado Springs where we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Shivers Fund. This was the last biennial celebration. These events have supported the endowment for the Pike’s Peak Library to ensure funding for the African-American Historical and Cultural Collection and to offer scholarships to young artists. Peggy Shivers and her late husband Clarence—both accomplished artists in their own right—began the fund in 1993. The fund has made immeasurable contributions to the community and demonstrates what can happen when we are in it for the long haul.

I could hardly turn around at the Shivers gala without bumping into a cousin performing at a high level in the arts. My friend Leon Burke is such a one. But the Shivers extended family goes beyond blood relatives. One of our greatest pleasures there was getting to know Juan and Doris Huey-Ray. Juan (a choral conductor and singer) and Leon (an orchestral conductor and singer) bonded like brothers. Back home I found this quote on his Facebook page from one of his chorus members at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church.

Rehearsals: “We’re professionals here.”

Intense work.
Instruction on technique and sound from the best directors around.
Utter discouragement when we can’t get it right.

Then suddenly we have church right there in the middle of practice.

Aaaaannnd then we’re back to the grueling work. Totally exhausting. Totally fun. Totally worth it.

During our conversations with Juan he spoke of the twin principles of gaining and grounding inspiration through the vertical dimension and sharing it with community as the horizontal dimension. Inspiration is tapping into our life force. Then we must become servants to this force as we nurture and channel it into our creative products. This is where those drafts and rehearsals come in as we make our creative pledge to work through the “utter discouragement when we can’t get it right” and keep going until we do.

Accept the gift of inspiration gratefully when it comes and don’t waste it, knowing that this is only one of the means you have available to shape your creative force into products that will gift the world.

______________

Janet Riehl is an artist, writer, storyteller, and undisciplined musician.  You can learn more about her work at http://www.riehlife.com.

Poet at the Piano: Karol Radziwonowicz

Flowers for Karol

Flowers for Karol (photo by Janet  Riehl)

By Janet Grace Riehl

My lunch with a world-famous pianist

“Would you like to have lunch with a world-famous pianist?” Leon  asked over the phone.

Well, sure! Karol Radziwonowicz was in St. Louis to give a benefit  concert  for the University City Symphony Orchestra  before going on to the  Paderewski Festival in Paso Robles, California.

When we got to the Thai restaurant so near closing time, it was all ours: Leon, Karol, his sister Monika Zahorska and her husband. Karol had just stepped off the plane from Poland after a long flight and 45 minutes on the tarmac. Jet lag hadn’t made a dent in his old-world charm. He inclined his head slightly and clasped my hand as we were introduced. Both Karol and Leon are tall men (in the stratospheric range), but in each other’s company they were average size.

“Are you a musician, too?” Karol asked, searching for common ground.

“Not like you and Leon are. But my father (almost 98) raised us surrounded by the music of his youth. We sang in the car. We all played several instruments. When I was in high school I was the violin soloist for our orchestra. That was one of the scariest things I ever did.”

“Music was always around us, too. My father taught us piano.”

“Was that awkward?”

“No,” Monika explained. “When he taught us, he was ‘Professor.’ Then, when we were with the family, he was our father.”

“How do you prepare for a concert, Karol?”

“Sleep!” We laughed and nodded.

“Do you get nervous?”

“There needs to be some tension beforehand for it to be a good performance. But once I’m on stage it’s just me, the music, and the audience.”

“He says that it’s a spiritual connection with the audience,” Karol’s brother-in-law added. “An energy they share.”

The next night at the performance, I fully understood.

Sheldon Concert Hall

My front row seat at the Sheldon Concert Hall

The next night I was there on the spot when the doors opened at the Sheldon. I snagged two front row seats that would practically be in Karol’s lap—so close that when the performance started I could feel the vibrations from the Steinway.

The Sheldon Concert Hall has dream acoustics—in the top ten nationally. Built in 1914 it’s an intimate venue warmed by coffered ceilings, stained glass windows, and ornate carving from a time gone-by. There’s no bad seat in the house—every one of the 700 seats has a direct sight line to the stage.

Leon at Chaparral Musicfest

Leon stepped out on stage to introduce Karol. He has the timing and the pacing of a stand-up comic. As he rolled out Karol’s credits he studiously avoided saying his last name—tricky for those of us who don’t speak Polish. So when he finally got to “Radziwonowicz” he paused, and then said it perfectly. The audience laughed and applauded. Back stage he’d asked Karol “How do you say your name.” Leon had parroted it back to him a couple of times, written it down in the international phonetic alphabet, and then pronounced it as if he’d been speaking Polish all his life.

Karol at the piano

Karol came out, bowed, and sat quietly in front of the piano, gathering himself. When he placed his fingers on the keys, he swept us into a world where only music lived. For 90 minutes—including several encores—he held us there. Leon sat next to me. As a pianist, singer, and conductor he knows this world at his core. He was in piano heaven. His long fingers followed the melody as he studied Karol’s fingering. He listened to each piece as he would to an old friend he hadn’t seen for awhile.

As a child I played piano as a duty—as many of us do. But that night I understood the magic. Karol is a poet at the piano whether he’s attacking the notes with great force, or caressing the keys as a lover might. He’s old school. Although he fingers can fly over the keys and he can reach the top of the decibel meter, his playing isn’t about speed and volume. I listened, and felt the music vibrating. As it entered my body I sometimes jerked, or giggled. And I watched. His body, his fingers, his feet on the sustain pedal, his head all were at one with the emerging music.

Music is an ephemeral art. It only exists when it’s played, and each artist makes it new again with his interpretation. Karol gave us music that was as much in the pauses as in the notes—filled with humor as well as ecstasy.

As the last note of the program softly echoed and then faded, we stood as one body. A beautiful woman delivered the biggest bouquet of flowers I’ve ever seen. He bowed and left the stage. When the applause called him back, he strode out with the gigantic bouquet in his arms and tenderly placed it on the floor in front of the piano to share with us. After three short encores he took his last bow, and took out his white handkerchief to wipe his brow of well-earned perspiration. Leon went backstage to congratulate him. When they both emerged, I stepped close to Karol and looked up. Again we clasped hands as I told him how much the music had touched me. That, indeed, I had felt this mystical communion he’d spoken about at lunch. Fellow musicians and aficionados came to share their affection and joy with him. They couldn’t get enough of him. The house manager quietly eased us toward the reception so he could close the door.

The reception room was in a swirl of orchestra players, members of St. Louis Polonia (the concert sponsor), and Karol’s adoring public. I saw his sister Monika—dizzy with happiness. “About what we were talking about at lunch yesterday? Your question about how Karol prepares for a concert? After his shower he called to me and said, ‘Monika, please don’t worry. I can feel it.’ So I had to let go.”

After the reception I slipped out through the Green Room with Leon and Karol’s family. Leon changed jackets. I seized the moment to snap a photo of the bouquet. Monika and her husband picked up paper bags filled with supplies, and we walked out the back door of the Sheldon.

A round from long-ago bonfires came to me: “All things must perish from under the sky. Music alone shall live. Music alone shall live. Never to die.” This night the music had come alive and so did we.

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NOTE: Karol Radziwonowicz  is a world-famous pianist educated in Poland and in the United States of America, who has performed throughout Europe, North and South America, Australia, and Asia. In February 2010, a recording of Radziwonowicz’s interpretations of Chopin’s music was taken aboard the NASA Space Shuttle mission STS-130 to the International Space Station, an achievement marked by EMI’s release of the disc “Chopin: the Space Concert.”

He has performed with the National Philharmonic, National Orchestra of Polish Radio and Television, Sinfonia Varsovia (Poland), St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra (Russia), Argentina Symphony Orchestra, and has been featured with concert orchestras in Vienna, Paris, Moscow, St. Petersburg, San Francisco, Berlin, Zurich, New York, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Tokyo, Delhi, and Sydney.

He was the first pianist in the world to record the complete piano works of Ignacy Jan Paderewski . Since its inception in 2004, Radziwonowicz has also served as President of the International Paderewski Music Society in Warsaw. In this capacity he has overseen a number of publications, international conferences and concerts held in Poland and abroad, and has served as Director and Curator of the Paderewski Museum at Łazienki Palace in Warsaw.

And…he’s a darn nice guy.

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