Monday, December 22, 2014

Everything I Need to Know About Teaching I Learned. . .

. . . from my high school french horn teacher.

Okay, it's my blog, so I can brag about my kids. This Christmas season, Calvin sold his CDs and collected $780 for Feed My Starving Children. Mary sold these angel cards and collected over $700 for cousin Stacey's "Stacey's Earth Angels" account to support her battle with pancreatic cancer. That's pretty cool.

One of the packages I mailed out went to Jennie McKenna, my high school french horn teacher. For some time now she has been teaching band at the Jr. High where my mom taught and where my sister teaches--so they are all still chummy. She bought some of Mary's cards because she likes angels.

This got me to thinking about my lessons with Jennie. I'm not gonna say how long ago, but you may have forgotten that I was a four-year Iowa All-State French Horn player and that I went to NIU and UT both on french horn scholarships. Though I did eventually sell my beautiful horn to pay the bills, those years were not wasted.

Jennie taught me a lot.

She taught me to connect with students. At the beginning of each lesson she would ask how I was. How was band? How was school? How were my friends? How was Dean? And then she would listen. This all only took 45-60 seconds of the lesson, but I had another adult in my life who cared how it was going during those fragile years. Twenty years later stupid high school boys are still not appreciating smart musical beautiful high school girls--some things never change. The years are still fragile. Connect with students.

She taught me to be generous with my time. My mom wrote the check for a half hour lesson, but I can't remember a lesson that wasn't 45-60 minutes. She did what needed to be done and it wasn't about the money.

She played duets with me on her horn. I thought this was "blow-off" time--sight reading because I hadn't practiced enough. I realize now that playing duets with her allowed me to listen to her sound, her rhythm, her articulation and her phrasing. It was actually the most efficient way to learn. Listening, listening, listening.

She taught me how to prep for an audition. Honor band. All-State. College. We prepped. She would be the judge and she would go through the motions of the whole audition--pretending to be intimidating and grouchy. Asking for the hardest scale. Interrupting my cadenza. Anything to catch me off guard. I wish I still had that confidence.

She taught me that we can to hard things. Beethoven. Mozart. Strauss. All the hard stuff. She dug in.

It wasn't just the music that was hard. Sometimes life was harder. She lost a baby to sudden infant death. My mom did the tough thing and took me to the visitation where old men sobbed quietly in chairs in corners of the room. And Jennie kept going.

I think that's why she likes angels. I think that's why I like angels. She taught me that you can have your heart broken and still keep going.

On a lighter note, that was helpful when Dean left me for another girl--I did keep going too and Jennie would have cared about that. Smile.

My UT french horn teacher was a jerk. He made me cry at every lesson and ultimately drove me to quit though he had heavily recruited me to come there. He was a past Chicago Symphony guy. A big shot.

Sometimes the small town high school band teacher trumps the CSO guy for instilling a love of music. And she protected who I was.

We teach first for the love of the child, second for the love of music.

So, Jennie, thanks for the trip down memory lane, and thanks for all the lessons about music and life, and for all the love you put into your teaching. I hope you enjoy your angel cards and if Mary decides to play french horn. . . you know who I'm gonna call.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Just Enough Merry and Bright

Well, here's to happy endings. We had a lovely, lovely recital and Christmas party. Every child was well and everyone stayed for the party. Two of the children played Christmas songs accompanied by their grandfather. Hannah accompanied three of her younger siblings. Everyone played one Suzuki piece and one Christmas piece. I loved every minute of it. Mary pulled a Spiritoso out of a hat.

Then. . . three performances of the choral service at church. This year I mostly served as rehearsal pianist--the orchestra had the main focus. I got to play one jazzy song which was fun, and small accompaniments on a few others. Calvin played percussion on two pieces. Bill was not invited back to play second clarinet this year. . . hmmmm.

After the services on Sunday, we four Kotrbas went out for brunch. We got home around 2:00 and I sat down on the sofa and was going to look at some recipes. When I woke up it was dark. That from me, the non-napper. Apparently the excess caffeine from Saturday had completely worn off. . .

Since then we've been on the Christmas train. The tea Monday night--Calvin played background Christmas piano music for an hour and a half and sold 23 CDs for FMSC. I bought a cake this year. The cake was very good. Monday night was also the dance program. Cue the Daddy/Daughter/date. Tuesday night was the multi-school jazz ensemble concert (three or maybe more separate arrangements of Winter Wonderland, I lost count) and tonight the kids get to go to a musical at the Ordway Theatre with their Auntie Ann and company. Tomorrow my mom comes and the festivities actually begin.

When my mom gets here I wanted to have the house clean with candles lit and a roast beast in the oven. I hoped to have all my presents wrapped and Mary's hair in rag curlers. I dreamed the house would sparkle. Freshly fallen snow.

Instead we are managing clean socks for everyone and deli meat with rinsed grapes. The lights are out on the Christmas decorations and Calvin doesn't have time to fix them. There is a heap of laundry and I still have shopping to do--let alone wrapping. I haven't seen the kitchen counter since the recital. Bill is stuck in California due to flight delays. (Husbands who travel the week before Christmas lose brownie points--hence the passive aggressive second clarinet joke to get back at him.)

But, my mother is coming to my home, and I know that is a gift that not everyone will get this year. So, amidst the hectic week, I'm grateful.

I'm grateful for my family. For my sister and my niece who will be spending the first Christmas without Paul. For Bill's family and our traditions. I'm grateful for friends--oh dear friends, I do love you all.

I'm grateful for cats who pee in the box and a bunny who stays alive.

I'm grateful for my home--and the Christmas chaos it holds. Mary is starting a new project every 30 seconds--origami everything with modeling clay and a sewing machine thrown in. Wrapping paper and ribbons, powdered sugar on the floor. Presents stashed in every conceivable cranny. Some of the deli meat is actually some pretty good roast beast. There is just enough snow to cover the muck. Just enough sparkle to get us through.

So, you should be proud of me, though we are hanging on by a Christmas thread and the same six Christmas CDs have been on my stereo for three weeks. . . .I'm right here right now.

Merry Christmas to you all--even if your Christmas isn't white, and even if it isn't what you dreamed or hoped or even wanted. . .  may you be where you are meant to be, right here, right now, with just enough merry and bright.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Okay. I give.
Someone has been sick in this house since the beginning of November. Mary has Influenza A. I don't know the H and N numbers and I don't care. I've had it. Bill was sick for three weeks. Calvin was sick going into his Book 7 recital. Our Christmas recital is in two days and Mary is down and out. Did you know tamiflu is $314.55? And she threw up the first two doses. I've cleaned up and wiped noses and shaken thermometers--hugged and kissed. There's no hope of proper hygiene when you are taking care of your baby.

In the middle of the night it came to me--again--Jesus take the wheel. . . I can't singlehandedly keep the world healthy no matter how many vitamins and medicines I give. Any of us could get ill anytime. Our church choral service is this weekend too--so I get worried that I would actually get sick enough--like Mary is now--to really let people down. And the piano kids have been working so hard on their pieces. The Christmas recital is my favorite day of the year.

Relinquish control.

Fear of being sick or having your family be sick is with obvious exceptions, often worse than the real flu. I hate fear. It's the opposite of love.

My grandpa John used to say, "I wouldn't worry too much about that. There's not too much you can do about that." That's from an Iowa farmer--no stranger to relinquishment--of--the wind and rain and hail and bugs.

I dropped Calvin with his lingering cough at school. Came home and went through the Christmas cards. Took Mary's temp--102.5. Worse than last night.

I finally let the tears roll--when I read my friends Annette's Christmas note--I've seen this message before but you know how things hit you differently when you're down. (Parentheses mine.)

May today there be peace within.  (that means right now, not when everyone is well)
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. (home with a sick girl)
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. (healing)
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. (love is the opposite of fear--nothing can truly attack us here under God's loving wings. And. . . it's just a rectial.) 


Monday, December 1, 2014

Holiday Traditions

A relaxing puzzle

Happy Schmoo

Activities in Nisswa including warming fires

Santa makes a big entrance

Our feet still warm in this photo

Mayor's car? 

Mary has moon boots on under the traditional blue robe. . . burr

Minnesota is crazy like this. . . fireworks in winter

It's really good for Calvin to lose now and then
When I was a little girl, Christmas was everything. Our family traditions were thick. I could write a novel about the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mom made candy and cookies and decorated our house. We went to advent services and my sister and I made elaborate programs. I spent hours sequestered in my room embroidering gifts for my family. My grandparents had a whole series of intricate protocols surrounding their arrival on Christmas Eve. Like I said, I could write a book.

During this time. . . once we did something one year. . . it became. . . the tradition. And the traditions stacked up. Special dinner out, fondue, tour of lights. . . special concert. This cookie. That cookie. Hamballs. Lasagna. Cranberry candles.

It is the same with the Bill and Sara Kotrba generation. Our traditions are more than we can fit into the season. Joyful or oppressive? Jury is out.

Last Wednesday almost sunk me. There was more to be done than can ever be done and the Thanksgiving traditions along with packing and church and choir and having the kids home from school thank you very much ISD 196 threatened my very best self. On the phone between frantic scurrying I vented to my mother. There's got to be a better way. There's got to be a way I can do this better, I cried. I have an honorary doctorate in time management and multitasking, but even with that, I'm still struggling with bending time and space to conquer the to-do list on such days. I was not my very best self. I was a hot mess, saved only by my husband swooping in and taking over the drum lesson chauffeuring which bought me two hours of child free sanity to pack and practice.

We got up north, at midnight at five below. It was, I believe all worth it, to wake up on Thanksgiving morning and start RELAXING. Start checking off the traditions. Puzzle. Turkey. Nisswa activities. Shopping with Bill's mom. A movie in the actual theatre. Games. Verdict? Joyful. Truly. I wouldn't change a thing.

Our church's advent devotion for yesterday suggested we all make a promise and post it. I promise to not be psycho for the next two whole weeks.

Actually, I promised to try to keep Christ in Christmas. This morning on the way to school the Holiday Traditions station was playing Ella Fitzgerald. The stereo read: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christ. There wasn't room for the "mas."  Okay, so the Holy Spirit talks to me through pop-radio as well as yoga teachers.

Is there hope for fulfilling the tradition quota and keeping Christ in Christmas and even making it joyful?

Hope springs eternal. I'm gonna try it again. The journey of a thousand miles starts with December 1. I am a mother with two extended families, a piano teacher with a Christmas recital, and a church musician with a heavy advent role. My kids are church musicians, so they fill in any gaps in the schedule. I also have the unquenchable yearning to create the old fashioned sacred and beautiful and filled with every cookie and candy and candle Christmas. For my kids. For myself.

So, insert your own profanity, I love Christmas. Maybe there isn't a better way, Mother. Maybe it's just the hot mess that is me and maybe the occasional meltdown is just part of the deal. Maybe it's even a sacred tradition? Like the little Norwegian ornaments and the lingenberry juice. I've been simultaneously celebrating and complaining about Christmas for a very long time now. See the last few years' early December blog entries . . . I'm probably not going to change much this year.

Can you still love me?

I didn't promise to simplify.
I didn't promise to cut back.
I didn't promise to scale down.
I did not promise to not be psycho.

I only promised to try to keep Christ in Christmas.

I love Christ. . .mas.
And I'm going to embrace the next meltdown, as I know it will come. My attempts at a perfect Christmas season make me so far from perfect, I know. The meltdown is officially one of the essential holiday traditions. Sooner or later, it will have to be checked off. Why not face it a little more joyfully? Hey, maybe we'll do that one twice this year.

Christ is all about grace. Forgiveness. Not cookies and music and candies and decorations. The paradox is that I know this but I'm gonna do it all anyway. Squeezing every last drop from the season is in my DNA.

For me, this year, keeping Christ in Christmas might mostly mean being a little more forgiving of myself as I face the annual meltdown(s). I don't have to be perfect. That's why we have Christmas to begin with. That little baby Jesus I'm putting in the lighted manger whose little twinkling lights are busted again came to fix it all for us. Even the stress over celebrating his birth. I'm already forgiven.

Have yourself a merry little Christ.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Blessed Are the Flexible

. . . for they shall not be bent out of shape. Even when someone adds "bi" to metallics and takes way too many points and robs the joy of the moment from his little sister.

This weekend was our annual Suzuki Association of Minnesota workshop, complete with annual meeting. I am president elect of this organization of strings, harps, guitars, flutes, and pianos.

Our piano teacher's organization is a sub-group of S.A.M. We are a separate non-profit but we do a lot of projects together. We are a well-oiled machine. When one of us sneezes the other reaches for the tissue. When one is stressed, the other finishes the job. We know who to call to get the job done.

I'm not used to the S.A.M. way yet. I'm truly worried that they just won't like having a pianist (the first non-string) president next year. Maybe they just don't like me. Maybe I'm a broken cog in their well-oiled machine. But, I noticed there wasn't a contender for the position and they did vote me in.

Ah, the workshop. Our clinician was wonderful. But. . . the organization of the piano portion of this weekend's workshop was a little dicey to say the least. We were in danger of not having rooms with pianos for awhile (I offered my home, but the MacPhail gang figured it out). The payment info was inconsistent and there was the little issue of paying our clinician. I don't know the avenues of communication yet, and I don't know their system or in some cases, lack thereof. (Forgive the tone. . . ) Too many cooks in the kitchen and no-one has the whole recipe.

Blessed are the flexible for they shall not be bent out of shape.

I was a little bent out of shape. And I'm guessing even though I have been a member of S.A.M. for 17 years, they are highly skeptical of me as well. So I lost a little sleep. And I wondered if I made a mistake taking this on.

And I woke up and went to yoga. Sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks to me through the yoga teacher. I'm only half joking. She, the yoga teacher that is, opened the class with the quote, "Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape."

And then she played this song. "One Voice."
Link to "One Voice."

And I realized that maybe I was not being flexible. And I knew suddenly that the next two years of S.A.M. leadership would be okay. Our one voice is to support teachers, and parents, and students. Maybe I can be a little less of a rusty cog and just add a little oil to their machine. Our machine. Blessed are the flexible for they will not be bent out of shape.

This is the sound of all of us
Singing with love and the will to trust
leave the rest behind it will turn to dust
this is the sound of all of us

Friday, November 21, 2014

Let Them Eat Cake

For the record, Bill was not pleased with his photos. I rushed him. No time for the right kind of flash or whatever and it was a snowstorm and the driveway needed sand and salt before the guests arrived. I just wanted to preserve the moment before the cake and punch left their mark.

Last Saturday we had a full house. Thanks to all who braved the snow and ice. Studio kids came and friends and of course the grandparents and Bill's sister and her mother-in-law. Calvin had three school friends come. Yes, middle school boys. They RSVP'ed to me and brought little gifts of European chocolate. Wow. Equally amazing, little three-year-old Úna sat completely still for the whole hour and a half program, setting a new bar for "being a good audience" and five-year-old Ford made it quite a while before his long winter's nap, which is actually being a good audience too in my book. . .

Mary played beautifully. She picked all good tempi and was there in the music as opposed to elsewhere in her mind. A fancy dress helps with that. . . I'm not joking. She really pulled it together. It was a big program for her--and we were a little rushed--in order to let the kids play on the same recital. Bad teacher. Bad mom. But--sometimes if you don't have a deadline you never cross the finish line. She used her music for Spiritoso, which didn't bother me at all because I'm pleased that she is reading so well. She's had poise a mile long and many beautiful moments. Before getting cake all over the dress.

Calvin was rock solid. I'm not saying that every piece was the best he ever played it--that's asking too much--especially coming off a week with the flu. But I trust him. He's not going to train wreck. Once he puts on the shoes and suit he's there. What we missed the last week, with him being ill was a couple full run-throughs. He just didn't have the energy. So--he and I both underestimated the physical oomph to get through the program. We will have to start carb loading him next time, but he stuck the Prelude ending and we got a good graduation recording of the Bartok. The Beethoven will be there waiting for him his whole life. Note to self. . . suit pants only last four months before they are too short. . . buy multiple sizes next time or duct tape the hem so you can let it out. 

I was super proud. And nobody threw up. And we ate a lot of cake.

The ballet teacher came. Mary's only been taking ballet once a week for a couple months, so I was pleasantly surprised. The teacher stayed--and enjoyed the reception. I believe she appreciated a family engaging in classical music and a lovely party. She's from Germany and doesn't have family here and she told us how she doesn't see that much appreciation for the arts in young people here. I liked her before--she's beautiful and lanky in the ballet way and so calm in the class--gently adjusting the girls' feet--but now I love her. All I ever wanted from a gymnastics coach or a dance teacher was one single ounce of appreciation for my child as a whole person. Now I'm tender.

Thank you to my mother--who never sat down the whole time she was here--and who baked and baked and cleaned the kitchen one thousand times. Thank you Bill, for putting up with sleep-deprived me. I know you probably don't believe this--but I get pretty darn grouchy. . . little old me. . . a little off kilter.

Now we are done. And on the downhill to Christmas. I thought I would cry. I thought I would be relieved. But I didn't feel too much of anything except love. These recitals are pauses on the journey--and the road keeps going and going and going. On to masterclasses this weekend for S.A.M. and then the studio recital. More practice. More dresses and shoes. Another chance to learn and grow. To meet new people and get new ideas.

To celebrate the kids and share the music.

Another chance to eat cake, and not worry where it goes. . .

Congratulations, Calvin and Mary!

Friday, November 14, 2014

God Gave the Growth

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 1 Corinthians 3:6.

I realize I'm taking that scripture completely out of the context of Biblical history, but nonetheless it's been going through my mind all week.

It's so boring to read about. . . but suffice it to say that life snowballed on me this week. Calvin was sick all week, there was an SAA deadline for my video presentation for Parents as Partners, a SAM board meeting which I ran on Emily's behalf, choir, the regular piano kids and extra practice everyday with Calvin and Mary in preparation for the their graduation recitals this weekend. Thirty pieces we have been working on between the two of them. And yesterday apparently we had a heavy exposure to yet another stomach flu. Send us prayers for health in the next 48 hours. . .

I took Calvin back to the doctor Wednesday morn.  On top of the crazy virus he had with the normal cough/cold/stomach hoopla, he had a double ear infection and pink eye. He told me the pitch was off in his ears, and one ear was hearing a half step higher than the other. The doctor was a pianist and told him that he would have to be like Beethoven and play with his heart at the recital and not his ears. That's funny. But not exactly what I had in mind pedagogically. My husband's mantra is you don't play with your fingers, you play with your ears.

Speaking of my husband--I feel such a need to give thanks this week. To him, to Delores, to Mary Lynn and my mom--all the people who helped me get through this week.

And also--my heart is so full of thanks to all the teachers who have helped Calvin and Mary particularly the last 18 months getting ready for this recital. So here it goes. . .

Thank you Fay Adams and Karen Bartman. Thank you Gail Gebhart and Linda Gutterman. Thank you Annette Lee and Suzanne Greer. Thank you Beatriz Aguerrrevere for being Mary's "piano grandma." Thank you all, for all the patience working with my kids. It's not easy to teach a teacher's kid. Thank you Jill Thomas and Maria Grant for being on the teach your own kids support line--those little thoughts you send go a long way. Who am I forgetting? I'll think of it later. . .

Thank you Vickie Pautz and Doris Harrel and the whole gang in Austin and Houston--for everything you continue to teach me.

This community is amazing to me. I can't imagine teaching without it.

We had help outside the community too--thanks to Tadeusz Majewsky and Kathie Faricy and Katheran Ananda Owens. What a wealth of good people we have in life.

So when I say I teach my own kids. Yes, I planted, but these teachers watered. And God gave the growth.

Thank you Jonelle, for ever so kindly and persistently reminding me of my own words, that it isn't about this particular performance--it's about how they play the piano. With their ears. With their hearts. The work is done. The practice is over. All that is left is the gift of music to a room full of people who love you.

And cake. A lot a cake.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Beautiful and Hard

It was a doozy of a week. Bill was down for six days with an awful virus. I had my three hour eye appointment. After careful study of very sophisticated photos of my optic nerves, I'm cleared for yearly checkups again. That's good, but those tests wiped me. Those little notes are sometimes very hard to see after those bright lights.

The kids have yesterday and today off for conferences.


I scheduled conferences with fifteen minutes between my own lessons at home and each kid's conference, with five minutes between to walk from the elementary to the middle school. My mother taught me how to bend time and space, but sometimes I forget the formula. I forget that Mary likes to peruse the book fair. I forgot that Calvin likes to have mini conferences with all his grade school teachers. . .

God, I wish I was one of those relaxed mothers who just plans the whole day for one thing.

Anyway, I didn't take into account that Mary's precious teacher, who was also Calvin's teacher lost her father unexpectedly last Saturday. That conference could have actually taken an entire evening with a bottle of wine and a box of tissues. She's asked me how long it had been since my dad died. I said five years with tears in my eyes. You can't rush grief.

You can't rush conferences. I didn't take into account that the teachers would tell me that Mary has been more scattered than usual this Fall and maybe we need to talk about this a little more seriously. I didn't take into account that Calvin is registering for fricken high school and I need to get him open enrolled yesterday with a four year outline of classes so that he can fulfill all the prerequesites blah blah blah and still take band and driver's ed so that he can get into a college that he chooses and live a decent life.

In fifteen minute intervals.

I'm crying now.

What Mary needs is time and space. Sleep. And a hug every 20 seconds.

For school. For piano. For life.

Then again it just may be that she's gonna chew her food with her mouth wide open forever and I guess I'll love her just the same.

She needs less stuff. And more time and space.

I need less stuff and more time and space. Sleep. And a hug every 20 seconds.

Last night I tried to squash these conferences down and practice my anthem for Sunday, which is very beautiful but one of those. . .

That's actually a good quadrant. "Pretty and hard" I can do. Pretty and hard is worth doing.

We can do hard things. I didn't make that up. It comes from Glennon Doyle Melton and her Momestary Blog. It's one of her mantras.

All the piano kids want to play the hard stuff. They saw the generation before and they want to do that piece. But they don't all know how to do the work. I take for granted when they beg me to play the Minute Waltz that they are actually going to put more than a minute of work into the sucker.

But, we have to teach them HOW to do the work. Beat by beat. Measure by measure. How to you learn? How to you organize your time.

Mary and Calvin have each been putting in an hour and a half of piano every day getting ready for their recitals next weekend. I have to tell you that I'm completely fried. No one is more sick of the Rondo alla turca than me. Spinning song has lost it's sparkle. But there are moments of complete beauty where tears are rolling down my eyes. And Mary has come so far in the last ten days. You think she's scattered in frisbee golf? Try getting a perfect graduation recording of the four page Clementi Spiritoso. You know not the miracle that you witness.

We can do hard things. Folding laundry and cooking dinner can get very tired out too, but I sure do love to put on clean clothes and eat a meal. So. We can do it. At this point I still believe the growth is worth the endurance factor. We only grow by doing hard things. It's just easier when they are beautiful too.

Beautiful and hard. That's a quadrant I can do.

But, I might need a little more sleep and a few more hugs along the way, and. . . in eight days this particular hurdle will be over. It will be a very long time before I assign the alla turca or the spinning song to a student. . . put them into the burnout archives with Happy Farmer and Melody. Tra la la. If you see me, give me a hug. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween

I was going to title the blog "Hating Halloween" because that's how I really feel. But, then I remembered an article I read this week "Be Responsible for the Energy You Bring to the Room."

So. HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Positive energy!

Mama? Why don't you like Halloween?
Conjuring positive energy. . . I think it's all the emphasis on death and blood and scary things, Mary.
There's enough death and blood and scary things in real life that we don't really need a holiday to celebrate them.

I like pretty things. And life. And security. And peace. And whole wheat and fruits and vegetables. I just threw out the Easter candy yesterday. It was past the statute of candy limitations.

Ohmmmm.  Positive energy. . . cream colored ponies. . . 

God bless Mary. She has been a bunny for eight years now. Wash up the white leggings, white shirt, tail and ears. Done. She knows--that pushing me to create a different costume might drive me over the edge and force me to take us all to an orchestra concert instead of trick-or-treating. The thought of little boys in store bought spiderman suits is more than I can cope with. Maybe it's because we have a hard enough time being our authentic selves to begin with. Then we go to the store and buy a fake suit and tell our kids it's fun to be a fake Elsa. Ohmmmm.

Oh crud, I just hurt like 35,437 little kids feelings. Not responsible behavior. . . 

I'm not bringing positive energy to the room. . . .

Fresh start.

POSITIVE energy. Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes. 

Calvin typed a school composition for Mary. It would have taken her the whole conference break and he typed it in just under two minutes and thirty-seven seconds.  Mary, you should think of what favor you could do for Calvin when he needs it. Mama, there isn't anything that I do better than Calvin. He's older and pretty much better at everything.

That's not true. You are very good at meeting people.
Why am I good at meeting people?

Well, Mary, I think it's because you operate under the assumption that people are good and fun. And that you are a likable person. Why wouldn't it be great to meet new friends, if people are basically good and fun, and chances are high that they will like you too?

You see the best in people. They tend to see the best in you.

That's what good friends do. They see the best in us and let the rest blow away like Fall leaves and negative Halloween posts.

That's what good teachers try to do--to see the pure child and the light and the energy that they bring to the lesson. Find the tiniest spark of good and magnify it.

It's easy to teach the sweet little ones who bring you an orange and a pastry.

The teen who hasn't practiced yet this year requires a little more fabricated positive energy. No one ever loved music more after they got yelled at. Make a plan. Give a fresh start. Blow the rest away. Again.

That's what God does for us too. He sees the good in me and brings his positive energy to me everyday. Sunshine. Wild turkeys. An orange and a pastry from a three year old with red hair.

Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings. . . 

And He gives me a fresh start moment after moment after moment. Snickers bar after Snickers bar after Snickers bar.

Pooling every last ounce of positive energy. . . 

Happy Halloween.

And I mean that. I will not spoil anyone else's fun. I'm gonna wear my winter coat and mittens and boots and I'm gonna walk down the streets in the twenty-five degree wind with my precious white bunny and her friend Hermione, while they solicit candy that will probably make them sick from strangers--with my best possible positive energy.

Okay I'm still dark. 
Last chance for positive attitude. . . right here.

After we get home and after the plastic pumpkin gets dumped out on the carpet, after the trades are made--if nobody throws up, pre-Advent begins. I'm gonna light a fire, make homemade caramels with a friend, put up Christmas lights and listen to the Messiah.

See--I can be responsible for the energy I bring to the room.
I know you can already feel the glow and I'm already feeling better just thinking about it.

Happy pre-Advent, Everyone!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Button Up Your Overcoat

 when the wind is free. . .
Take good care of yourself, 
you belong to me!

Here is Mary singing with the Dakota Valley Festival Children's Choir. The children's choir sang two songs including "Button Up Your Overcoat." All four district 196 high school choirs sang and then they combined for Robert Ray's Gospel Mass. The finale was the mass choir with the children's choir singing the Caldwell/Ivory Hope for Resolution. It might be that hearing high school kids and little kids singing Of the Father's love begotten, E'er the worlds began to be. He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending he might have undone me. It didn't help that the Eastview choir opened with"How Can I Keep From Singing?"

Cue the sniffling. Again.

The choral festival was just several hours of the total music this weekend. Mary and Calvin are busy practicing every song every day for their graduation recitals--read Sara is sitting at the piano many hours. . .  

Easter Choir sang a big Reformation Sunday anthem complete with piano, organ and brass sextet. Good news! Because of Martin Luther and the whole saved by grace and not by works, I don't have to worry so much about all the mistakes I made at the 8:30 a.m. service. I'm already forgiven. Add in confirmation service in the afternoon and we had A Mighty Fortress fully stuck in our ears.

In an effort to lessen the stress of the holidays, this year, we are paying to have Calvin's Christmas CD mass duplicated. This is huge--usually I'm frantically precision cutting CD liners at midnight on Christmas Eve while Bill sits at the light scribe machine feeding in blank CDs. Note the exaggeration, but you get my drift. Mass duplication is great--but it means Calvin has to have it all recorded by November 5. The piano room has become a recording studio and Quincy Jones himself was never under this kind of deadline.

I put a sign up on the piano room door--hour by hour who gets to use the space. . .

My kids are stressed. Where did they learn that when there is just a little too much going on we should freak out and either break down or take it out on everyone else around us?  Hmmm.  I don't know?

So we sat down and made a list. And we dropped out of the inventor's fair. And suddenly it's not so bad. If I taught them how to be stressed then it's my job to teach them how to work it out. It's only three more weeks. Then we are home free. . . except the whole Christmas thing.

Which brings me back to the "Button Up Your Overcoat" title. Take good care of yourself. . . you belong to me. Since I dramatically reduced my caffeine and sugar intake the last two months, I'm feeling pretty self righteous. I'm soooooo calm. However, now if I slip and have a coffee at a meeting, I'm up all night. Apparently we have to be good and take care of ourselves every day, not just most of the days.

This is the annual secure your own oxygen mask first blog entry. It's that time of year. The holidays are knocking hard at my door. The next ten weekends are spoken for.

It's all good. I love it all.

I love it more on less caffeine and sugar, eight hours sleep, and a little exercise. Busy will come and busy will go--but our family is here to stay. I'm going to try to be a better example to my kids. I know I'm gonna mess up--and so will they--and that's okay. Maybe starting off the season with reformation is a great idea. We are already forgiven. Grace is right there waiting for us.

Eat an apple every day, 
get to bed by three. . . 
Take good care of yourself. . . you belong to me.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Stacey's Earth Angels

I've never seen an angel.

But. . . there's been enough times in my life, when the right thing happened at just the right time, because the just right person showed up, for me to believe in them.

They don't always look like heavenly cherubim and seraphim. Most of the time they look just like you and me. I like to think they give us just a little nudge-a little poke from God--to take action.

So, Stephens clan--one of us could use a little action. Our cousin and niece Stacey is having a knock down drag out down in Arizona with that old enemy, pancreatic cancer. Stacey is 49 years old. She has one son. Aunt Kathy is taking care of her.

She and my aunt could use a little, maybe a lot, of help with incidental medical expenses that insurance is just not covering. My mom is close with Aunt Kathy and though neither Kathy nor Stacey would ever have asked for it, Janel set up an account for all of us to pitch in and give them some relief. Donations are completely anonymous. You can deposit a little or a lot at any US Bank in the world and ask them to put the deposit into "Stacey Ogles Donation Account." They will look it up. It's nick named "Stacey's Earth Angels." Or mail it to US Bank, 102 E. 5th Street, Tipton, IA 52772.

All of us Stephens cousins came from the same Grandpa Gene and Grandma Ethel in Ainsworth, Iowa. If Gene and Ethel were still here, they would bring out the coffee and the animal cookies and sit down in the living room and listen to Stacey's whole story. And then they would write a check.

They are not here. And I think we all know how utterly crappy this cancer is. I'm not in Arizona. I can't bring over a pot roast or drive Stacey to chemo or give Kathy any extra help. But I can walk into my US bank and transfer a little money into a lot of love.

Stacey--hang in there. Accept this love=money from your family and friends. You are so loved by all of us!

Monday, October 20, 2014

An Invitation. . .

You are cordially invited to the graduation programs of:
Mary Ray Kotrba and 
John Calvin Kotrba

Saturday November 15, at 3:00
In the home of Bill and Sara Kotrba

Mary will graduate from Book 3  & play works of Clementi, Kuhlau, Schumann, Beethoven, Burgmuller, and Kabalevsky

Calvin will perform Beethoven Op. 79, 
Six Chopin pieces, Scarlatti, Grieg, Mozart 
and the Bartok Romanian Folk Dances

A reception will follow

We hope you will join us and please R.S.V.P. to Sara at 
so we can save a seat for you. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Sing Me Home

Daddy and Mary

My Grandma and Mary
Yesterday we sang Karen home. In a beautiful service, her grandchildren sang, her daughter sang, the choir sang, the congregation sang, the guest pastor sang and even Karen sang in a precious last video message from her. How can we keep from singing?

Everyday babies are born and everyday somewhere someone buries a parent. But when it's your baby, or your parent, it changes everything. They will miss their Karen.

In the post funeral empty, I wrapped presents for my sister and my niece, packed the suitcases for the birthday weekend in Iowa and called Casey. I cried on the phone to Casey because that's what we do.

Bill got home from work and we loaded up the car and drove south to my mother's farm. We talked about the service and turns out he called his friend Tim on the way back from church to work too. That's what we do.

And as the hour got later and we both were getting tired, I played DJ with the 80's power ballads on my iTunes. I listened to my husband's voice singing quietly along and driving.

I sang along a little, but mostly I let him sing me home.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Ones We Love

As pastor Sam would say, we lost one of our good people this weekend. Karen Capel lost her very short battle with pancreatic cancer. Losing Karen leaves a huge impact crater. My friend lost her mom. My student lost her grandma. Our church choir lost an alto. The list could go on and on. A friend. A golfer. A women of faith.

I overheard Mary and Amelia talking. . . why is it that only the ones we love get cancer?

If those little girls come up with an answer I'll shout it to the world.

Meanwhile, we celebrate Karen's life. We will be busy this week with church and music, as though if we practiced hard enough we could somehow lighten their grief.

We can't do that, but we can sing the song for them.

Sara's guest blog on Easter's website: My Life Goes on In Endless Song.