Judith Mikesch McKenzie's Blog

June 10, 2014


Tonight, as I walked by a shelf in my home, a music box that I've had for forty years began to play.  I hadn't touched it, hadn't wound it, hadn't jostled it at all - it just began to play on its own. The Blue Danube.  This has happened three other times in the last fifteen years, and, each time, I listen until it stops, then think.

Tonight, I think of The Blue Danube.  My late husband bought me this music box because he knew that piece was special to me, but (at the time) he didn't know why.  I'd told him that it was the first full piece I learned to play on the piano, which was true, but not the whole story.

When I was about nine years old, my mother volunteered to take in two Cuban girls who'd been airlifted out of Cuba after the revolution there.  Volunteers from all over the country were sought through churches and community groups, and my mother told our parish priest that she could take two girls, and two girls we got.  Anna and Rosa showed up at our door, barely speaking English, confronted with a house full of rowdy, loud, working-class American girls.  We certainly must have made some kind of impression.  Anna was the older of the two, and intent on becoming a nun, and Rosa was just a few months older than I was.

One of the first things they noted was the piano in our dining room.  It belonged to my older sister and some of us were attempting to learn.  Rosa was delighted, and sat down soon at the piano, playing out bits of melodies and tunes she'd learned.  I sat with her one day, and showed her the book I was learning from, opening at random to a page - The Blue Danube.  In broken English, she let me know she had never been able to learn it.   I told her I was trying and she looked at me.

It was a look I was used to - I saw it often outside in the streets of our town.  The 'you-are-lesser' look.  I wasn't, however, used to seeing it in my home.  It nudged something awake in me.  "You can't," she told me definitively.  Not you.  The message was clear:  if I am not good enough to learn it, you cannot be.

That was the first time in my young life I felt the fire.  Over the next many weeks and months, I practiced The Blue Danube every time Rosa was not around.  I'd taught myself to play, as we couldn't afford real lessons, and I knew my technique, my fingering, was not right.  I listened to recordings my father and mother had of The Blue Danube, and, with experimentation, managed to find the right sound for every bar, every note.  And, still, I didn't play it for her, not yet.  I listened more, practice more, perfected.

Finally, one night, I called her to the piano just before dinner, and played the entire thing for her, from beginning to end, perfectly.  As I played, her lips pressed tighter and tighter.  When I'd finished, she walked to the dinner table without comment, and said nothing about it to me.  Ever.  But, over the next months that Anna and Rosa lived with us, she treated me differently.   Looking back, it's not definable to me, but I knew that I had changed things, and that it was good.  We talked, we shared, she admired my ability to pick up her native Spanish quickly.

The Blue Danube was my declaration.  It was the point in my life where I took all the expectations layered onto a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, all the you-can'ts and turned them into I can.  For that, I will always owe Rosa a debt of gratitude.  My late husband understood the importance of this song to me, though he didn't know the whole story, I suspect that, as a kid from the wrong side of the tracks himself, he intuited it, and gave me one of the most perfect gifts I've received.  For decades now, the box has sat on a shelf, rarely played, rarely wound, seldom cleaned and oiled.  But, randomly, and at significant times, I'll be in a room alone with it, and the music box, sitting across the room from me, will begin to play.  A message for me.  You can. 

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Published on June 10, 2014 20:09 • 16 views

June 15, 2013

Ro visited me in my dreams last night.  This doesn’t happen often anymore, and it seemed significant to me that it happened on the night the music box played again. 
Thirty (or more) years ago, Ro gave me a music box for my birthday.  It’s a small thing, unadorned wood, with a glass window inside that lets you see the works as it plays The Blue Danube – the first piece of music I learned to play on the piano.  I loved it – it was one of my favorite presents I ever received.  In the years since his death, it has sat on a shelf in my Writer’s Cave, and, once in a rare while, I take it down, flip the little switch to let it play, and be sure the gears are still in working order, clean it, turn it off, and set it back.  
In the house I’m living in now, it has sat on the windowsill of my Writer’s Cave the entire year we’ve lived here.   Once, a few years ago, I was sitting in my then-cave, and came to the decision that I was going (come hell or high water) to go to Africa.  At that very moment, the music box – across the room from me, untouched – began to play.  Yesterday, a similar thing happened.  I’d been struggling with some decisions, and, sitting there, had the right course of action settle in my mind and heart, and, at that very moment, the music box began to play. 
Then, last night, the dream.  At the opening, Ro and I are renting an apartment, a second-story walkup in a funky old building.  Wood floors, wood stove, funky walls.  It has a huge long room he can use as workshop/office, a well-lit room with great windows for my Cave, and a smallish room we claim as our bedroom.  The kitchen has funky old counters and the main room feels like a big airy studio.  We love it.  We take it.
Fast forward.  All our kids are visiting, and the place is crammed.  Ro disappears somewhere, and I am unconcerned.   I sleep well that night and in the morning, while kid/grandkid chaos reigns in the kitchen of our place, I go for a drive – in part to look for him, mostly just to drive.   I return, a bit disoriented, but am sure I am at the right place when I see Ro’s old boat parked outside – an old rowboat he had years ago that (much to his chagrin) I christened “The Milksop.”  I get out of my car (the car I have now) and remark to some guy nearby who has just gotten out of his enormous pickup truck, parking his own boat:  “There’s too many damn boats here!”  And head inside.
Inside, I find that Ro did NOT disappear, but slept the night on the floor of his studio.  I wake him, and chastise him for bringing my rocker in there.  He says it’s his rocker.  He’s right of course.  Even though I got the rocker from my friend Ruth, it was his from the moment it entered our house. I wrap my arms around him and insist we have a talk.  He turns to respond to me, and we both stumble onto the floor.  “That,” I tell him, “wasn’t in the plan.”  He smiles and laughs – we both laugh, and I wake.
Every time I’ve had a dream with Ro in it (since he died, and, well, actually, before) it’s had a meaning – a meaning I’ve been able to discern while thinking it through, but this one has me puzzled.  The boat, the rocking chair, the rental of the loft, the presence of all the kids – I can’t quite puzzle what I’m supposed to take from it.  
I sit here on my deck, my netbook in my lap, and wonder.  Maybe it’s those last lines and the laughter they engendered – THAT, my love, was NOT in the plan.  Ro and I used to love to plan for things – adventures, trips, outings, parties, our kids’ lives.  (Not necessarily in that order)  But, one of the most significant lessons I learned from him and his life is adaptation.   I think he would have loved the character of Malcolm Reynolds from “Firefly” – whose plans never “go smooth,”  but who always adapts, always finds a way through – because that was us.  The best laid plans never included all the many many roadblocks and challenges life threw our way, but we always made it through.  If there was ever a person who embodied the quintessential element of ‘acceptance’ inherent in Buddhist philosophy, it was Ro.  ‘OK, so this is what we have now – on we go.’
I’ve gotten better at that as my own life has gone on, mostly from his example.  The other remarkable skill he had was in claiming his own life, going his own way, being authentic to his self, regardless of those roadblocks and challenges.  That one I’m still working on.  The moments I come closest are the moments the music box plays for me - and I listen.
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Published on June 15, 2013 18:42 • 2 views

December 28, 2012

But this is not a admonition to go with a touchy-feely, do-whatever-feels-right-to-you approach to writing.  You have to work at it, for it to work.

It means, as my old Zen teacher was always saying, and as my very wise sister recently said to me, that you have to LISTEN.

Listen to your gut feelings, listen to feedback, listen to your characters, and most of all listen to what your body and your intuition are telling you.

I have been working on a new book (I'll Fly Away) for more than a year.  I was at a point where I knew one of my characters needed further development, and I was getting nowhere with that.  One morning, as I went into my writer's room (V. Woolf was right - you DO need one) to begin my writing day, something told me that closeting myself in there would not work.  This character is a  performer, a comic, a public personality - I needed to write about him in a public place.

So, I adjourned to a place where I knew there'd be plenty of people, noisy, raucous and conversational - my neighborhood bar - and took up in a booth in a corner.   I went there for five days in a row, and, on the last day I went, a song played on the jukebox that opened up this character's voice in my mind.  (The song was "Spirit in the Sky" if you're curious.)  I went home, and in the week since then, have more than thirty new pages that bring this character into sharp relief.  Because I was listening.
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Published on December 28, 2012 16:27 • 37 views

December 16, 2012

I am thinking today about the obsessive nature of creativity.  The book I am working on now (I'll Fly Away) has become something of an obsession;  I'm aware of that.  But I'm not worried.  There are two other pieces I wrote which felt that way:  "Two Mothers Speak" (my first published novel, Winston-Derek Press, 1997) and "Locus of Memory"  (currently in pre-publication).  The two best things I've written, I think (as do some of my most trusted critics), so this obsession with the current piece is probably a good thing.  What I am considering is what happens when things (read:   Life) get in the way of that obsession.

What happened for me in the past when Life interrupted is that I wrote other things, or channeled creativity elsewhere.  I have two textbooks out there, two sci-fi novels (fun to write, but not obsessive) a few short stories published, poems, and a whole passel of articles and essays. 

I love to write.  It is part of the essence of who I am.  But when this obsession takes hold, it is something different.  When a character and the world they inhabit become this real, when what they have to say begins to feel this important, my own passion for writing becomes secondary, irrelevant.  Their story is primary, and demands attention.

So, when Life interrupts such a process (say, like, moving, or working on a play, or going from living alone to a house full of people), returning to them is a journey.  I was in their world and either got yanked or yanked myself out of it to this world to take care of things, and now I have to find my way back to them.  It's a familiar road, but that does not mean that it's not difficult to follow.  I put on my walking shoes, and off I go.   Sometimes I go down the wrong path and have to backtrack, but I can hear them in the distance, so I know I'll get there. 
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Published on December 16, 2012 08:07 • 44 views

March 5, 2012

For the last couple of years, in addition to spending inordinate amounts of time at the keyboard (and in front of classrooms), I've been doing community theater. I've been a farmer's wife, a roman soldier, an angel, St. Matthew (right), another farmer's wife (in 'Trifles' - left), and a murderous mom. It has been the most crazy fun imaginable, and incredibly hard work. I've learned a great deal, and come to respect the hard work and dedication of those who put so much into bringing wonderful stories to the stage. I've been inspired, and I've made some of the most interesting and fun friends of my life.

Every art form has it's unique features, strengths, and weaknesses. As a writer, I have for years been aware of the unique elements of that pursuit - what I didn't fully expect was the degree to which participating in different art-forms would be beneficial to my practice as a writer. Some of that came from a unique perspective on character. As a writer, character has always come to me in a somewhat mystical way - suddenly, there is this other person, whose story I simply must tell. Of course, it is not that simple. The "sudden" appearance comes usually after days/weeks/months (sometimes years) of focusing on, thinking about, and developing an idea.

In theater, it is equally as simple and as thoroughly complicated. Finding the embodiment of a character is wickedly hard work, and when one considers that those who do it for community theater do it for free, out of simple love of the art, one cannot help but respect what goes into it. As a writer, I've found that watching, practicing, and studying this work has given new depth to how I approach the development of my characters on paper, and I am forever grateful for that.
Support your local community theaters. Give to them, and attend them. And grow.

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Published on March 05, 2012 14:15 • 19 views

February 28, 2012

(Spoiler warning): If you don't like posts that are all about gratitude and positive thoughts, you might want to skip this one. Just sayin.

I have said this many times, but I am really feeling it today - I am one lucky woman.

Lucky in love (even tho I've lost him, we had something most people never do). More than thirty years of riotous, chaotic, lovely time together.

Lucky in family an d children (great kids & grandkids, wonderful sisters & cousins and all)... growing up in a chaotic, loud house full of Irish Catholic girls, and then being fortunate enough to have three beautiful, wonderfully talented children.

Lucky in my work (how many people can say that they've had THREE professions at which they got exactly the job they wanted, loved going to work, and were passionate about their work?)... I worked for years (my youthful goal) in social services, helping the homeless, abused children, abused women, refugees, and the elderly. And meeting and making friends with fabulous people along the way in that work.

Lucky in friends (having so many, and so many who are flat-out wonderful - you know who you are) ... My teaching friends, my writing friends, my theater friends, my friends from social service and from various neighborhoods I've lived in, my "Africa friends" - each time fortunate enough to meet people who I connected with, who I shared with, and who shared with me.

and lucky in life in general. I have had so many amazing experiences on different continents, at archeological digs, in theater. Have had so much fun and wonderful adventures adventures... am thinking specifically of a gorilla in the middle of a road across the Kal ahari, and also a flat-out mystical experience in the hills around Taos. Not to mention the deaf and blind students I got to know at Eluwa Special School in Namibia, and the I-swear-he-was-descended-from-leprechauns guy who served as my voluntary tour guide around Dublin. I've been to fabulous archeological digs where we found artifacts in the thousands. I've been onstage with some wonderful, creative, talented people. I've published books, and traveled to places I will never forget.

It has been the "luck of the Irish" in many ways. I have never made much money. As an outspoken Irishwoman, I've made enemies (aplenty). I have lost two of my sisters, both tragically young, and my husband, the love of my life, at just 49. He and I worked for years to have a solid home and savings, and lost it all (so many dollars I can't bear to print the amount) in the battle against his (terminal, incurable) disease.

But (other than perhaps wanting to change the suffering he endured or his all-too-early death) I would not change a thing in my life. It's made me who I am, and I now lead a life I could never have imagined and which I deeply love. I am, yes, one lucky woman.[image error]
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Published on February 28, 2012 17:30 • 160 views

December 7, 2011

This past week, a curious "post" circulated on Facebook: asking your "friends" (Facebook friends) to un-subscribe from your "comments and likes" so that they will not show up in more public areas of Facebook, and will therefore - theoretically - prevent hackers from accessing your Facebook profile, on which little to no personal information (and NO financial information) is stored, anyway. Most people seemed to respond immediately by following the instructions and un-subscribing from the requested parts of their friends pages.

I almost did, but stopped myself.

This seems to me symptomatic of a troublesome cultural trend - the notion that "free speech" means that we only have to hear the speech we want to hear. I first heard this position expressed in a Department meeting at the school where I work, when one colleague advocated passionately for restrictions on what kinds of things we'd discuss, so that others in the Department would feel comfortable with what they heard, and thereby feel comfortable speaking - and this advocacy was presented as an argument for free speech, with no apparent recognition that what was being advocated was restricting someone's speech because someone else didn't like what they were saying.

This trend seems even more evident in online social media….Facebook, Twitter, etc… in the sense that one chooses who can be on their "friend" list or who "follows" and chooses who they will (and will not) follow (or, therefore, listen to). What this seems to be accomplishing is creating an online culture (perpetuated in the real world) that is increasingly exclusive rather than inclusive. It seems that everything about the pervasiveness of electronic media encourages this trend.

You've done it. I know you have - it doesn't matter where you are, or who you're with. Your phone rings, and you glance at the caller ID, glance at the person you're with, and make an immediate judgment…which of them is more important to you at that moment. Who will you engage in dialog, converse with by text, or perhaps even (!!) pick up the phone and speak with? Without reservation or hesitation, we rank the relative conversational importance of people in our world - often right in front of them. A young college student, recently questioned about his reactions as a friend 'dissed' him by picking up a call from someone else in the middle of their conversation - shrugged it off. "He knows," said this young man, "that I'll do the same thing to him." To him. An open acknowledgement that such actions are an action against - a negative judgment. And it's okay.

On social media, either by intention, or by omission of thought, we do the same thing - we decline (or ignore) friend requests, we un-subscribe, we block. By doing so, we judge, and we exclude. One can't help but wonder - at what cost?

I first joined the community of online media in 1992, when AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy were the only options for online access from home, and wifi was unheard-of. Online social interaction then was largely restricted to "chat rooms," where anyone could come in and talk with anyone else who happened to be online. I regularly spoke with Steve Case, the head of AOL at the time, and in chat rooms made friends with best selling author Tom Clancy, well-known musicians, writers, and others - including a janitor from Kentucky who was one of the most intelligent, well-read, and philosophical humans I've ever met. In today's media, I would never have met them. Any of them. Nor would I have had the opportunities I had then to engage in conversation and debate with both liberals and conservatives, the religious and the atheists, the privileged and the oppressed. We disagreed all the time. Bitterly. Openly. Bloodily. And we learned. And we developed respect.

I am not sure such inclusive dialogue is even possible in electronic media the way it is structured today, which is largely a structure that encourages exclusiveness, and enhances the ease of enacting it. I, however, will not un-subscribe from anyone's words.

I am hardly a Luddite. I have frequently been known to have laptop, netbook, ipod, and smart phone all open and active in front of me at the same time. I want to use the media to connect, to hear from others, to find understanding of other human's thoughts. But I am not sure that the direction our media currently goes will even allow me to do that in the inclusive way I would like. What little I can do, at least for now, is to refuse to un-subscribe or to block others. I want to hear even those with whom I profoundly disagree, or whose style or wit or choice of words makes me uncomfortable-- perhaps even to hear them most of all.[image error]
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Published on December 07, 2011 16:32 • 55 views

July 4, 2011

One advantage of advanced years = much experience to be grateful for. Am grateful today for times of great passion and great pain, great love and terrible loss, victories and defeats, many satisfactions and much suffering, tons of adventure and times of inertia. Am grateful for all of it. All of it. And ready for whatever comes next.....[image error]
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Published on July 04, 2011 10:28 • 49 views

July 3, 2011

Friendships, it seems, are like the tides - there are periods in my life (when the tide is in) when so many friends call me, invite me out, want my time, that I am quite literally unable to do it all. And other times (the tide is out) when I hear from no one.

What strikes me is that, at least in my case, this seems to happen in ways that are very fortunate for me - times when I need to be thinking closely about my work, spending long quiet (and, yes, lonely) hours focusing on capturing a mood, or a moment, or a memory...seem generally to be when tides are out - perhaps even negative tides, (as it feels today) --- friends so distant, so removed, that I'm not even sure I'll see them again. Friendships that have appeared to have crumbled under the force of the waves and are far out to sea, far past the horizon, and I look down, in my lap, at the shells and rocks I've collected there, and begin to shape them into something new.

The high tide days come together, in long stretches of submerged beaches and crashing waves....work, family and life so fully demanding that oh, hell, why not add seven or eight social events to the mix....who'll notice? Life then is chaotic, crashing, climactic. It carries you with it, one wave after another of laughter and fellowship and fun. And then......out the tide goes.

It is some odd and mixed blessing to have these tides of friendship so synchronized with the life of writing, teaching, and creating. When the waves pull out, the beach begins to take the full heat of the sun, and that can burn. But it is, in the lone tidepools and wanton rock hollows of that strewn beach, the richest part of the cycle.[image error]
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Published on July 03, 2011 16:39 • 39 views

May 9, 2011

Happily announcing the e-publication of my book, "101 Things You can do for Peace." I originally wrote this book during the first Gulf War, when an abbreviated version of it was distributed as a pamphlet by an international peace organization. At the time, I was much disillusioned with the 60s-esque carry-signs-and-march-in-the streets anti-war strategies. I doubted the effectiveness of these strategies, and knew that they were alienating to many. I hoped for things that people could do to create grass-roots level change in a culture of violence and aggression, that might, with time, create lasting change and that would do no harm. Hence, the book. It seemed an appropriate time to re-publish the full version. It is currently available on amazon.com as a Kindle e-book, and will be available in hard copy soon.

Also available on Amazon are my former novel, Two Mothers Speak, and, soon, my new speculative fiction book, The Heretics Song. Upcoming also, the book I am currently finishing: "The Bells Ring at Eluwa," a non-fiction book about teaching at a school for the deaf in Ongwediva, Namibia.[image error]
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Published on May 09, 2011 19:13 • 36 views