And the Earth Breathes…

Photo: Road RainRain. It’s been quite plentiful in North Texas this last year or so, which isn’t historically common. Certainly feels like a different place, whether the weather is on a truly new cycle or it’s merely a blip in the cosmic scheme of things, and my traveling-companion and I marvel every time we’re out and about at how strangely, beautifully green the region is for this time of year. It helps to take the edge off of the heat, as well, and I can’t help but smell that magical eau-de-vie perfume exhaled by the world when it’s rainy and feel renewed, myself. What a calming effect it has.Photo: The Grey that Leads to Green

I know that many parts of the world are being treated less kindly by the rains and getting swamped in floods, and hope that mother earth will find a balance that harms none, helps all to flourish, but can’t help being grateful for our gentler and more nourishing version of the weather thus far. Our road trip to Santa Fe and back in late July/early August not only provided further evidence in its proliferation of green and growing things along our route but treated us to the beauties of stormy summer skies and perfumed earthy air quite a few times, as well. While storms do bring their troubles with them, those that do kindly leave us unharmed are a magnificent show of power and spectacle and beauty beyond human invention and remind me to show my respect and appreciation for nature more often.Photo: Well-Fed Landscape

The scent is all; this haunting
fragrance takes, in perfect synchrony,
my breath away and gives it back again,
back in electric rush as though
I’d leapt from ocean’s-depths
straight into air again—
This moment, this aching, longing,
gorgeous spark
of miniature infinity, this marks the time
when I find myself renewed, reborn—
The atomized eternity
that I breathe in, that I
pull in through every singing, sharp
electron of my frame, makes me go racing
back into the origins of time—still
fleeting, pass through iron gates
to death, and just as suddenly,
burst forth and know the spangled joys
of present life again


Santa Fe Afternoon
(A Breaking Storm’s Baptism)
Ochre and indigo, shadows and fire,
and in the far-off pines, a chanting bird
insinuating secret things is heard,
then joined by other birds, whose hearts’ desire
Is that the fulsome, clouded, darkling sky
should soon release a feathered shaft its own:
the lightning, thunder echoing with groan
and shout, to rout the perching birds to fly,
For they all wait, as we, gravity-bound,
wait under porches’ purple-gloaming eaves
for when the rain shakes us out of the leaves
to chase again the richness of this ground,
For water always wakens us once more,
Resuscitating all with petrichor.

Photo: The Veiled Desert

Even in the desert, the earth rejoices when the sky lets down its veils of rain.

With this little photo-essay and pair of poems, I’m reflecting on those joys, but also giving you a little preview: my books #2 and 3 should be published in good time for winter gift shopping, whether you’re interested in giving something to someone else or treating yourself! One of the books is a second volume sharing additional adventures in Miss Kitty’s Fabulous Emporium of Magical Thinking (or, MiKiFEMT-1), and the other will be a more grownup book of my poetry and visual images. Both in full color, this time. Not to worry, you can still get copies of that first book of nonsensical delights shipped directly to you any time you like, just by visiting good old Amazon online. You should have plenty of reading material handy in case the rain comes to visit again…

Photo: A Good Day for Reading

It’s always a good day for reading.

The Hooey Decimal System

photoWhen I sort and edit photos, it helps if I can create categories and subcategories that will help me to find and use them after the fact. If an event or occasion is short and simple in the relative sense of such things, the name of the event or occasion itself may suffice as filing ID, but what of things like our summer road trip that encompass 5 weeks, 6000 miles, a dozen states, 2 countries, 3 music conferences, a dozen members of the immediate family, a half-dozen motels and hotels, and ever so much more?

What I tend to do is create an all-encompassing title that all photos will bear, identifying them as part of the larger expedition, and then putting them into files and sub-files that clarify the who-what-when-where-why-&-how of them. This helps me have at least a slight hope of locating any single shot or group of shots from among the multitude that remains even after I’ve culled a multitude more. It also reminds me of what things became, either because of my continuing interest in them or by natural default of recurrence on the way, thematic in the event.

Not surprising, then, that this extended road trip would have obvious and substantial files of many very familiar subjects. To be sure, there are a quantity of such old favorites of mine that any moderately frequent or attentive visitor to this blog could easily guess. Given my blog header, I can start with my fondness for rusty, rustic old things (like me, naturally), mechanical bits and industrial loveliness. There are hints in that image, as well, of my magpie adoration of all things shiny-metal, glass, water, jewels, plastic and any other thing that glints to catch my avid eye.photoMy many obsessions also appear in nature: flora, fauna, sea, sky and stone. If there’s a noticeable cloud formation or special kind of light I am lured to admiration of it. Insects draw me like, well, the proverbial flame-drawn moth. I’m an ignorant admirer of all sorts of vehicles that strike me as different or novel when it comes to my everyday experience, so there are always photos in my stash of cars and trucks, boats and trains, heavy equipment and the slightest, lightest personal transport other than feet. Feet, for that matter, can make perfectly entertaining objects of my camera’s affections, since people in general are also on my list, and character-full feet or quirkily clad ones or ones that by position tell a story ought to make marvelous image sources any time.photoIn the case of human subjects, I do have something of a restrictive love, however. When I know the subjects of my documentation, I’d usually rather be interacting with them, so often, the camera sits idle and forgotten unless I have some sort of mandate to shoot. If I don’t know the people, I am bound by respect for their privacy almost as much as by my shyness not to photograph them at all. So aside from crowd shots and unidentifiably altered distant views, I’m not likely to include too many people in my panoply of for-art photographs.photoWhere people congregate or what people have left behind, that’s all fodder for my imagination, though. I love buildings–the older or odder, the better–and their endless details, and whether they are homes or hospitals, offices or auditoriums, farm sheds or factories, they all have stories to tell. Ultimately, I suppose, that’s the overarching guide to my photographic peregrinations just as much as to my poetry and essays and drawing and every other expressive form of art I attempt: I am trying to discern, guess, or invent the stories behind those things I’ve seen.

There are, you know, endless stories just waiting to be

Signs & Portents

Every trip tends to have its unique interests, but they all share certain qualities, too. One, for me, is the abundance of intriguing, useful, surprising, puzzling, inviting and sometimes downright amazing signs of all sorts that mark the way. Our summer road trip was chock full of them, too; many whizzed by too quickly at highway speed to be commemorated by me with my trusty little camera, but some served well to mark a few of the highlights and oddities of our pilgrimage west and back.

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Some signs made me wonder if we’d suddenly gone far astray from our intended route, to another state, country or (occasionally) planet. [Remember to click on the images if you want to see them in greater detail.]

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A few signs were rather provocative, and many simply amused me greatly for one reason or another.

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Vintage signs often outlive their original purposes by being moved–or read–out of context. Unless, perhaps, the message has a more cosmic meaning…

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Some of the most welcome signs are those very familiar ones not seen in a very long time. It doesn’t matter so much that I’ve frequented the place or embraced the item as that the sentimental landmark each represents of other persons and places is called to mind.

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I’m especially fond, though, of those signs that seem to have lives of their own, through age and adventures unknown. I like to imagine what they denote beyond their mere artful decorations and texts.

On this particular escapade of ours, all signs pointed to a grand tour and many colorful memories. And led me, of course, to think ahead to all of the travels and signs yet to come in my life.

A [Mostly] Black & White Photoessay from the Road

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Farm Frames.
I loved the sweet repetition of gorgeous farms of all sorts, in parts of every state.

Some of the images yielded by five weeks and six thousand miles’ worth of rambling cross-country seemed to want expression in my old favorite black and white imagery. And, not coincidentally, this set particularly showcases my obsessions with seeing patterns, repetition and commonalities.

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Monolithic bare trees and sculptural bridges seemingly imitate each other.

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Twisted Trees
Driftwood. A helical trunk amid Douglas-fir and vine maple companions.

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AmeriCars the Beautiful
Car culture in the US may have long grown old, but it hasn’t stopped being a classic.

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Boarded Up
Fruit growers’ packing crates. A burned house.

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Shake Your Tailfeathers
Hawk? Maybe. Mallard, definitely.

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Sunday School
The old shed behind the parsonage, the inner workings of a portative organ, and a vintage church.

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God is in the Details
Small stuff, large impact.

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Spokes that speak for themselves.

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An older model pachyderm and an older model Packard? (Nah, I think it was a Rolls.)

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Strange Geometries
The wonder of a weird homemade aerial and the magic of a zebra.


The Road Worrier

digital photoThere is this thing called ‘Playing Chicken‘ that crazy, thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie drivers do, where they drive directly toward each other at top speed and see who can swerve the latest (or not at all) and win over the Chicken that swerves first. To me, the only logical form of this would occur in the middle of a vast desert; everyone in and cheering on the race would crash into instant atomic smithereens and then be roasted to a nice medium-rare by the resultant fire, feeding any passing buzzards and desert rats before the remaining debris became a handy rusted shelter for them from the noonday photo My personal version of Playing Chicken is simply the act of getting behind the wheel for any driving at photoWhen my anxiety was untreated and had free rein in my limbic system, this was effectively an internal game exclusively, but it convinced me that everything visible to me from my perch in the driver’s seat was aiming directly for me and moving at the speed of light. After some useful therapy and medication, I learned that my life as a free-range chicken didn’t have to be quite so dramatic, as my perception of danger changed to what I’m told is more Normal or at least more photoBeing healthier did not, however, make me give up every semblance of being Chicken Little. Recognizing that the sky was not falling helped me to focus more clearly on real dangers. There are still genuine potholes for me to avoid exploring too deeply, signs and speed limits to obey, idiot lights on the dash warning me of troubles inherent in the auto itself. And there are those cocky driving fools out there who don’t have any limbic inhibition or a concept of any limits on them or their privileged status as rulers of the photoAll of this in mind, you know just how meaningful it is to me that my spouse likes, is good at, and is willing to do almost all of our driving. He’s perfectly willing to be Driving Miss Lazy [or Crazy] 99% of the time. On our summer road trip, this meant that day and night, rain or shine, on the flats and through the mountains, my favorite chauffeur was at the wheel. Not only did this free me up to be the [so-so] navigator, the [marginally better] comic relief with my goofy car songs and pseudo-conversation, and the camera-in-hand travel documentarian, it made me able to stay closer to calm sanity whether we were on the beautiful Pacific Coast meanderings of old 101 or crossing the hypnotically still stretches of rural West photoThat makes me one happy traveling chick. With all of that safe and comfortable road behind me it did mean that on the last couple of lengthy days heading ‘back to the barn’ I could reasonably  put in a few hours as driver myself, even during blinding thunderstorms, and not fall apart at all. And now, back home, I’m free to look back on the whole cross-country venture as great fun rather than fearful, a golden egg in my memory’s treasury. Maybe I’m not such a dumb cluck.

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Hey! Turns out the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a train coming at me head-on, after all.

Going Places without Getting Anywhere

Summer holidays allows some of us lucky folk to indulge our inner travel junkie. This summer was pretty much the lottery winner for the Sparks household in that regard, and it helped to scratch my perpetual go-somewhere itch more than a little. We went on a Road Trip. By that I mean a 6000+ mile loop from Texas to the west coast, north to Canada, and back again, over five weeks.

I won extra, since I got to make that trip with my favorite partner-in-crime, my husband. And he likes driving and I don’t much, so he did nearly all of it. I just got to watch the world go by, cities, states, countries, plains, hills, mountains, rivers, forests, and much more. I sat there mesmerized, my camera propped on my lap or–more often–shooting away virtually aimlessly as we buzzed by at 85 mph/137 kph (yes, there are some places where that’s the speed limit in the US) in hopes of catching some of the amazing, beautiful, weird, wonderful stuff we passed along the way. Thank goodness I didn’t have to try this kind of photography on the Autobahn.

Being dyslexic in so many helpful ways, I am the last person who should be navigator on any trip, but I was reminded that maps of any sort have their limitations anyway, and GPS only adds new layers of complexity and adventure, as when our perky GPS announcer lady (affectionately known as Peggy Sue) calmly informs us from time to time that we are in Undiscovered Country, or as she likes to put it, Not in a Recognized Area. The fun part of it is that the map on our GPS just goes blank at that point except for the little red arrow that is us, which thereupon floats through the air with the greatest of ease. That’s when I really call on my fantastic piloting skills, of course.

Mostly what I learn from maps of any sort is how far we are from where we intended to be and how many complications lie in the space between. But that, too, is part of the thrill and amusement of road-tripping or, for that matter, travel of any sort. The planned and well-known aspects are seldom as exciting and interesting as the things found by accident, the experiences had in passing and the ‘scenic route’ that is a fixable mistake. If we never made any U-turns or wrong guesses or took any side roads instead of the Main Drag, life and travel would be ever so much duller. And this trip was anything but dull. I’ll share some of the adventures with you when the dust settles!digital illustration

It’s All Rehearsal, Really

Blog.08-30-2013.all-rehearsalWe may look like we’re all geared up and doing important stuff, but mostly, we spend all of our lives practicing, learning and getting ready for one thing or another. Some of those things happen in due course and many more of them either never quite come to fruition, or far more often, change along the way and we end up following along and seeing where it all takes us. All of this is quite normal and perfectly valid.

As a privileged observer and listener in many musical rehearsals long after the years when I was an active amateur participant, I can tell you that I think these more explicit practice sessions can have much the same sorts of both trajectories and outcomes. What anyone not privy to the backstage view of any sort of practice may easily forget, even if they once knew it, is that whether the moment is strictly obligatory, is amateur in the finer sense, or is wholly professional, it can have the same range of characteristics, studious, soulful, playful, predictable, heartrending or hilarious–or some grand combination of them all.

The experience of listening in on the preparations for musical performances is distinct from the performances themselves in a multitude of ways, but perhaps the most striking to a non-participant is arriving at a high-level rehearsal and seeing all and sundry set up camp for it in their work clothes. The star soloist is wearing old jeans. The conductor, who no matter how rigorously the singers and players enact their parts will likely move around and sweat the most, is wearing shorts and a short-sleeved, thin shirt. The players have open cases near their chairs with spare instrument pieces and alternate score parts strewn across them, and the singers, no matter what the temperature, are wearing neck scarves and lugging big containers of fluids to protect their own precious instruments. The rehearsal accompanist at the beat-up old piano is wearing glasses both on the bridge of the nose and the crown of the head, one for the easier to read individual parts and one for the microscopically reduced full score. All of this in a sort of ordered chaos the shows they are all there to Do Things. It’s work. It’s fun. It’s messy, like life.

Our Big Summer Road Trip, a driving circuit of over 6000 miles this July and August, was a multipurpose travel package designed to accomplish a number of ends, not least of them to attend and study and enjoy music-related adventures with friends, colleagues and other musicians and music lovers in several disparate events. First, we went to the Oregon Bach Festival to see the newly anointed Artistic Director make his debut interview marking the occasion, and more importantly to see maestro Helmuth Rilling conduct his grand finale performance as AD in this season when he officially passed the baton to his successor after 44 outstanding years at the Festival’s helm. The Festival is a fine one, Rilling a justly revered conductor and teacher, and many of the singers and players who participate, along with many regular OBF attendees, are longtime friends and colleagues, so it’s always a joy and privilege to go to the Festival ourselves, but particularly meaningful to see Rilling lead the B Minor Mass on his way to Conductor Emeritus status, since my husband Richard had the good fortune to sing the same piece under Rilling during the maestro’s second year at OBF. A great deal of water has gone under the bridge, and though a lot has changed in that flow of time, many things remain the same. Rehearsals and performances, practice and action go on as ever.

I had been reminded of all of this, of course, by the opportunity to attend the Boston Early Music Festival and see my spouse conduct and his Collegium Singers and the university’s Baroque Orchestra in June, along with admiring all of the other marvelous artists and events at BEMF. So many wonderful concerts and recitals; so much hard and happy work to prepare them! And how quickly June disappears into the mists of memory as the summer rolls forward. Thus, a long road trip seemingly becomes an amazingly fresh outing to experience more variations on this theme.

The second of the trio of musical events we attended on the road trip was the regional gathering of choral conductors in our former home area, a great opportunity to renew ties with longtime fellow conductors, teachers and friends over grilled wild salmon and to revisit musical literature options, audition processes, mull over the usual academic topics, share hints about favorite new compositions and gossip about who is the up-and-coming hottest new choir or conductor in anyone’s neighborhood. Driving up to the chapel that serves as the main conference space, whom should we see sitting visiting on the porch but a man who was the excellent recording engineer serving in that artistic task for many of my husband’s choirs’ recordings over the years, and with him, the teacher-conductor-mentor who led Richard to music as a vocation and profession in the first place and so became not only his ‘choral father’ but a lifelong dear friend. To follow this greeting with collegial renewal among many other fellow musical artists, from colleagues and collaborators to singers and students, composers and coordinators of conferences and musical programs at all levels, and then to have dinner a week later with both of those two first friends we’d spotted, was rich beyond words.

Third on our list and rounding out the road trip with our stop in Vancouver, BC, was the Vancouver Early Music Festival. A perfect bookend to starting the trip with OBF in Eugene, VEMF attendance had much the same purpose for us as the Oregon visit: see and hear good friends and other artists at work, and attend the events honoring the longtime AD’s retirement. While Jose Verstappen has served a mere 34 years in Vancouver, he has had as much impact of his own on the Festival there as Rilling has in Oregon, just a very different sort. Jose is a modest and self-effacing man, but as warm and as hardworking and dedicated, and certainly as hard for donors and supporters to say No to, as Rilling, and so both have created environments of commitment and excellence that will thrive long after both have abdicated their thrones. Matthew Halls, Rilling’s successor, and Matthew White, Verstappen’s, are both bright, gifted and able men and I expect to enjoy attending both festivals with as much outstanding artistry on display as ever in years to come.

While in Vancouver, besides the great fun of attending Verstappen’s farewell party, seeing many dear friends, meeting Bruce Dickey–the leading light of cornettists nowadays, he will be playing in the production of the Monteverdi Vespers Richard’s conducting in October–and hearing some terrific music of various kinds in concert, the highlight was sitting in during rehearsals for Händel’s ‘Israel in Egypt’. It was there that I was most struck by this lovely interweaving of labor and lightness that can happen when the people at practice are fully engaged in their work and love what they do. The piece itself is a marvel, full of potent and piquant and even picaresque melodies and moments, and those singing and playing it made the most of these riches. When Tyler Duncan and Sumner Thompson started singing the bass duet ‘The Lord is a Man of War‘, not only was the music and text mesmerizing (never mind my personal feelings about the story’s theology) but their obvious pleasure in exploring the expressive potential in the piece together with the players and conductor (the impressively sensitive and dramatic Alexander Weimann) moved me to pay special attention to this juxtaposition of the remarkable and the workaday, the plain and the powerful. So to all of you out there who sing, play, work, rehearse, prepare and perform, and especially to the players, singers, composers, conductors, administrators and Artistic Directors encountered on this summer tour of ours, I dedicate this illustrationNumber Thirty-Eight

Strike, then carry on, and so the sound

Belies in beauty such a martial start,

When ragtag troops in everyday are found

To sing and play at battle from the heart–

Who seemed so simply destined for the soil

As laborers in neither art nor war

But some plebeian, plodding sort of toil,

Then strike, and decimate what came before–

Show the illusion is not acted out

Through violence or merely artifice,

But rather, note by note dispelling doubt

That mystery’s all quite undone by this–

Where love and war are mingled in their way

By songs more eloquent than words can say.

I’ve Always Counted on Good Transportation


People have always remarked on the elegance of my carriage . . .

Road Tripping

On Friday I will hit the road by after-office evening light,

Hit it so hard it’ll snap up and roll like it’s a window shade,

Because a Friday evening is the sort of thing a road is made

For best—what else can put me in a frame of mind so near to right?—

And Saturday will likely see me tearing up the countryside

At speed, pretending I’ve no brakes except to let coyotes dash

Across (or ease me through the turns so I continue not to crash,

But rather, feel that sideways pull, the curve that makes my world so wide)—

And Sunday I’m still flying fast, and though turned homeward, yet a streak,

Because I must keep breathless joy searing my lungs, tearing my eyes,

Crowning my windy hair as though I’d won the biggest ever prize,

Since all this traveling is what will pull me through another week


. . . but what I had in mind was always a hot set of wheels . . .

Signs of a Good Trip Ahead

That wonderful invention the GPS is generally a generous gift to a diva of disorientation like me. With my myriad forms of dyslexia all interlocking magically to make it virtually impossible for me to find my way practically anywhere past my own mailbox, it’s nice to have a personal assistant, albeit a computerized one, telling me how to get from Point A to Point B and beyond. And I do love a good road trip, when the opportunity arises.


You are Here, but There’s No Here Here

But even our GPS (sometimes fondly called Peggy Sue after the lady who first helped us find our way around our new home, town and state) in all her digital wisdom can’t find everything. Sometimes, as on the above-pictured occasion, she has no more clue where her driver and passengers are than they do. And you know, it’s kind of amusing to me. Not only does it amuse me to look at the GPS screen and see it telling me that I am a little red arrow flying through the air in the vastness of uncharted space, but it’s weirdly reassuring to me that my lack of omniscience is far from unique in this world. All the same, I do appreciate Peggy Sue’s selfless assistance when it’s needed and available.photoOn the other hand, there’s plenty to be said for going forward without knowing what comes next. In life, it’s just plain inevitable–prescience of any sort is in mighty short supply. On holiday, going with the flow is often the perfect way to have a rich and full adventure, and even the occasional mishaps stand a chance of being fodder for both present delight and reminiscent hilarity. On the pictured ‘flight’ across uncharted Texas territory, my spouse and I were so happily absorbed in relishing the sights along the unknown way that we both failed to notice one of our other digital auto-assistants signaling us that the supply of petrol was diminishing, until it was seriously questionable whether we’d make it to a gas station before the tank ran dry. We knew we were in the vicinity of Seguin (a place we’d been through a few weeks ago) and crossed our fingers that following the intermittent signs to town would get us to a refilled tank in time. Not only did we make it in time, we had a trip in a time machine on the strength of that refueling. The little bit we’ve seen of Seguin has a remarkably somnolent sense of being stuck in time, and not even strictly one single point in time but rather as though everyone in the whole town has dragged his or her weathered boots every step of the way through its history, and everyone in turn has stopped off at a different spot in the past before picking up speed and rejoining the flow of time. Past and present meander in and out of each other and the buildings and land around Seguin and beckon us, in our turn, to slow down and enjoy the oddity of being off the map and off the tow rope of time simultaneously.

photoWe didn’t stop quite long enough to buy wrestling tickets, mind you, but the lure of the unique and the mystery of moving ahead without any inkling of what might lie ahead kept us rolling along all the happier when we were securely back on a full tank (once we found one of those vintage petrol pumps that was fully functional and deciphered the toothless ramblings of the guy sitting in his lawn chair ‘instructing’ us through our transaction from across the lot). If we hadn’t been to Seguin, we’d never have experienced its time-capsule marvels, potted around wondering how on earth a town that size could survive with so few gas stations, or gotten to see the World’s Largest Pecan, a sculpture on the lawn of City Hall that is probably really about the second or third largest representation of said nut in the US and possibly about the second or third least decorative sculpture (sorry, Seguin!) upon which any town proudly bases a promotional motto. Strange? A tad. Stuff I could easily have lived a long and healthy life without seeing or experiencing? Perhaps. But I’ve no regrets that our particular turns in the road took us there and led us to all of that fun, plenty entertaining even without wrestling tickets.

Auto Motives

What with the hours of car time necessary to get us home from our holiday outing, our little corps-of-four will be loading up and heading north first thing (though admittedly, only early by my standards). We drive a nice, if fairly ordinary, car. We’re a car = transportation couple, my spouse and I. Not the sort who would be willing to spend the kind of money, let alone take the risk of caring for and protecting it, that such a vehicle would require. We are hardly 100% practical, but fancy wheels are just not in our wheelhouse.

Still, a girl can dream. Even if I have no inclination to have the expense and responsibility of owning a snazzy car, I’ve been known to develop a crush on the occasional automobile. Truth be told, it’s highly likely that my loves of this celebrity-heartthrob variety are mostly influenced by remembrances of happy times and circumstances in my own life. Silly of me, but I’m kind of a sucker for late 60s and early 70s muscle cars.

So you’ll understand that, while we’re tooling up the freeway in our luggage-laden, comfy and serviceable and even moderately cute Honda Fit, I may possibly in my mind be riding in a certain other sort of car. Fantasy can carry me a long way, you