Friday, October 2, 2015

A Week with Alice Parker

With Alice in her studio
Dear Reader,

As I write this, I am sitting in my bed in an old rustic cabin at Singing Brook Farm. The farm is aptly named, not only because of the soothing sounds of the brook flowing by just outside my window; the dear lady who owns this farm, Alice Parker, lives a life overflowing with song. Like the brook that gently courses through her parcel of these serene hills in western Massachusetts, it helps bring life and energy to everything around it. Four colleagues and I have experienced that first hand over the past five days, and now we don’t want to leave.

Earlier today, Alice (as she insists on being called in spite of my feelings of unworthiness) was talking to us about “reentry”—how to mentally prepare ourselves to go back into the “real world.” Here, we are largely sheltered from its chaos. In fact, Alice said that the world could be falling apart at its seams even as we speak, and we wouldn’t know a thing about it. We are out in the middle of nowhere, with no cell service, very limited internet access, no TV, no radio. But we have song, and we have each other. This, here and now, she said, is the most important thing we could be doing. We are preparing to bring the joy of song to a world that desperately needs it. I know that because I needed it; I didn’t realize just how much until I came here again.

So just what have we been doing, while the world may or may not have been falling apart at the seams? We’ve been singing a great deal. We’ve been sharing ideas and stories, learning about one another’s craft. We’ve talked about the frustrations inherent in what we do, but also its great rewards. We’ve also eaten lots, cooked together, and probably gained weight. We’ve certainly laughed a lot. And we’ve peppered poor Alice with an almost relentless barrage of questions about almost everything imaginable. I commented to one of my colleagues that Alice is a perpetual fountain of profundity. That fountain never seems to run dry. And she’s almost 90 years old.

It’s inspiring, albeit a little embarrassing, that a 90-year-old seems to have more energy than I do. It must have a lot to do with her optimism and the joy she finds in simple things—the company of friends, a good meal, the bear that ran past the window and distracted us all during class, a folksong sung from the heart. By contrast, I was kind of depressed when I arrived here last Sunday afternoon. Things had not been going well; I was weighed down with deep regrets about the past and great uncertainty and doubts about the future—What should I do? Where should I go? Is the world falling apart? My own personal cloud seemed to be following me around and preventing me from seeing the beauty around me. It was through that cloud that Alice reached as her hand came in the open car window and warmly clasped mine. “Ethan! how lovely to see you again,” she said with grandmotherly sweetness and a radiant smile that makes her appear 20 years younger. Somehow, it felt a bit like coming home.

"Alice's Cabin," so named because her father built for her when she was a child. This is where the composition fellows stayed this year.
Well, dear reader, I heartily thank you for indulging my stories. For now, I suppose I should get some sleep. It’s after 11:00pm. I’d like to entertain the silly fancy that by sleeping in this cabin, where Alice used to sleep as a child and where she later worked on choral arrangements with Robert Shaw, I’ll inhale some of the creativity that is hopefully floating in the air (or is that moth balls I’m smelling?). We’ll see how it goes…

Deep peace to you,


October 1, 2015
Singing Brook Farm
Hawley, Massachusetts