Friday, December 12, 2008

Candles of Remembrance

A piece titled Candles of Remembrance which I wrote about Christmas in Finland is up on Angela Cerrito's Cultural Comprehension.

You can also read my essay (a revised version) below.

It was 3 pm, a cold Christmas Eve afternoon, and a broad sunset stretched across the sky as my family drove over snow-covered roads to the cemetery at Espoon Tuomiokirkko, an impressive medieval cathedral in Finland. A vast field of candles, spreading farther than our eyes could see, flickered through the bare trees.

 After we parked on an edge of a field, we joined the swelling throngs of people walking over ice-laden sidewalks toward the cemetery surrounding the cathedral. A service finished as we arrived, and people poured out the church doors.

 We quietly walked along narrow pathways, cleared of snow, through the cemetery lit by candles and the fading sun; a peaceful reverence embraced us. One, two or three candles rested on many snow-covered graves; an occasional grave lay dark and empty; more candles than I could count covered other graves.

 Occasionally, we paused and read gravestones: we read names of the recently deceased on new headstones; we read names on weathered headstones so ancient that the engravings were barely discernable. We wandered, while group after group—some large, some small—walked directly to their loved ones’ graves, carrying candles whose flames would withstand the wind, rain, and snow.

 An elderly couple with canes hobbled slowly toward us. They left the path, struggled through several inches of snow up a slight slope trying to reach a headstone, and I wished my language skills were better so I could offer the woman my arm. She watched as her husband lit the candles and with difficulty bent to place them on the ground. They stood still, silent.

 The cold seeped into my bones, and we moved on to a section of the cemetery lined with row upon row of identical gravestones surrounded by a short hedge. Upon each grave sat an identical candle, and at the rear, stretching from hedge to hedge, stood a 30-foot tall memorial for those who had died in World War II. Inside the hedge, soldiers stood guarding their fallen comrades. Small groups stepped inside the hedge and added candles to these graves. This was just a portion of those who died for Finland, I thought.

 A father clasped the hands of two young children, a young girl and a little boy, no more than four years old. They lit their candle and placed it on a grave. The father drew his children close to him. As we slipped by, hoping to not disturb them, I glanced at the headstone. As I read the name and date, my heart went out to the family. Their mother had died young, in her 30’s, not many years younger than me. It was those children’s first motherless Christmas.

 A cold breeze burned my face. My tears, freezing into small strands of ice as they slid downward, dampened my cheeks.

 Hundreds of lit candles huddled close together on snow-covered ground near the front doors of the cathedral: a place for those who could not travel to their loved ones’ graves. We paused here as sounds of sacred music flowed out through the open doors of the cathedral. A sign in Finnish said: “We love. We remember.”

 Crowds of people constantly came and went, adding their candles to the others. A woman, alone, lit a candle and held it in her shaking hands. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she found room for her candle. She paused for a moment gazing at the candle, then disappeared into the crowd.

 I wished I had brought candles to light for those I love who have passed away. But I remembered them as I watched the glowing flames.

 Now when I think about Christmas Eve, my heart aches and my eyes dampen for one of my friends who lives in Finland. She will soon carry a candle and walk through a cemetery and visit a grave that was not there last Christmas. She will light that candle and place it on the snowy ground and cry for the memories she had hoped for, the memories that will never be, for the infant that took only a few breaths. I wish I could be at her side to comfort her and wrap her in my arms. Instead, I will cry with her on Christmas Eve, as she lights a candle and places it on his grave, though I’m a continent away.

 While walking through the silent snow in the crowded cemetery, I sensed the symbolism as the dim afternoon darkened into the candlelit night. The lit candles express a longing for our loved ones and our hope of the resurrection.

 Today, I can still see the images of the cemetery, the gravestones, the candles, the people, the tears.
 I think for many, this tradition of lighting candles on Christmas Eve is an expression of faith, an expression of hope for reunion, an expression of remembrance. Remembering those who are no longer with us is a somber way to spend Christmas Eve, yet it helps us realize what is truly important: our family and friends. Now every year on Christmas Eve, I remember those I love who have passed on. And I will always remember my walk through the Finnish candlelit cemetery.

  “We love. We remember.”

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Technique and Tone

Technique creates tone.

My years of playing musical instruments and taking lessons taught me the importance of tone.
I know the importance of correct technique--the way I hold my hands, the way I position my body, the way I touch and pluck and manipulate the strings.

The guzheng is a complicated instrument and a challenge to learn.

I learned to tune the guzheng. This is the easy part.
I use picks that I tape (with medical tape) to my fingers.

Yes, these are my fingers. I am holding my hand at a funny angle.

My ear is becoming used to the pentatonic scale.
I am learning a new musical notation. (This is not so easy.)
Every single black speck means something.
All those numbers and dots and lines and squiggles.
I can't read the Chinese, but I can read this music. I can't play this exercise yet--it is toward the back of the book.

If you click on the picture you will be able to see the music more clearly. (The link takes you to a larger photo.)

My guzheng teacher and Chinese teaching methods focus on technique. The first book contains exercises that teach me some (all?) of the ways of creating sound on the guzheng. I am learning rapidly. My teacher allows me to progress as fast as I can, after all I don't need to take the exams like everyone else.

My teacher doesn't speak English.
I don't speak Chinese.
She demonstrates and I imitate. She moves my hands and fingers into the correct positions. This is hard. She is constantly correcting my hand position and with my left hand holding it in the correct position for a whole exercise. And it is hard to keep the open fist position and use the correct plucking technique. Very hard.
I try to hold my hands too close to the strings--I'm supposed to hold them quite far away.

It is hard for my hands to get used to different positions--to get in the habit so it is automatic to move in certain ways.
My left hand struggles--and wants to be in a piano position. The left hand is used on both sides of the bridges--one side to play melody and harmony, and the other side to create vibrato, change the actual note value as in making an A an B or an F an F#, and create sound effects.

I've been taking lessons for over 3 months. I realize that it takes years to learn to play the guzheng well.

The guzheng sounds SO cool.
The songs are very diverse and fun to listen to.
I hope to post a music sample of me playing within the next few months.
I hope to learn to play songs while I live in China. Where else could I find a teacher?

Photo of my Guzheng

Technique and tone are also critical to writing--but I'll let you make the comparisons.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fundraiser for literary journal--YA full manuscript critiques

For those who need something more to want for Christmas, or if you need an idea of a gift for a writing friend--this is for you.

Hunger Mountain, Vermont College's Journal of Arts and Letters (their literary journal) is auctioning off manuscript critiques.

I want a manuscript critique! (The bids start at less than $100.) I don't have a manuscript ready at the moment, but I could revise Crossings, or revise River so I have a second draft.

Many award winning authors and poets are donating their time and expertise to this auction. I'll note some of those who write young adult novels and picture books. These authors either teach at Vermont College (and I've met them and they are wonderful teachers and give great lectures), have taught at Vermont College, or have been a visiting author at VC.

Kathi Appelt (Nat. Book Award finalist this year.) (A partial novel critique and a PB critique are up for auction.)
Norma Fox Mazer (Newbery Honor Award)
Louise Hawes (Her lecture on characters and desire last semester was amazing.)
Carolyn Coman (Newbery Honor Award and Nat. Book Award finalist.)

The details are here:
The auction ends on December 13th.