Letters In Your Music Heart

The following is a small sampling of snapshots from my experience teaching elementary school music this past year:

  • Twenty five first graders marching and conducting to Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov’s Procession of the Nobles the day after the Seahawks’ downtown victory parade.
  • Playing Irish composer, Enya’s Storms in Africa to Kindergarteners who danced like animals in a thunderstorm, and the little boy who begged me to play it again at each subsequent class.
  • The nothing-short-of-holy hush that fell over 3rd graders as they listened to Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and absorbed the essence of mental perseverance even in the face of physical slavery.
  • The universal pride and sense of purpose of the 2nd graders singing and clapping their “Clean Water is a Human Right” Motown song for Water 1st and the school community.

Shortly after receiving word of the program’s cancellation last week, a bundle of letters arrived in the mail from a second grade teacher at the school.

Encouragement was not among the many emotions I expected to feel upon reading the letters, but that’s precisely what came. These children were not just speaking to me, but existentially to me, with their boundless hearts and minds, their utter lack of cynicism. The teacher was speaking to me too, not just with her letter, but also with her sense of timing and thoughtfulness. She closed the loop that the kids had opened.

Below are two of the letters, with signatures removed for privacy (although with any luck, the world will one day know their names).

In your music heartFeel how we feel


While the blueprints for my new chapter unroll in Seattle, my Aunt B has been painstakingly dismantling chapters down to the studs in her parents’ home in D.C., getting it ready to sell. She sends periodic group email updates to the family about her befuddling discoveries. Would anyone like a 1903 Victorian Chickering grand piano in Honduran Mahogany? It’ll only cost you $15-20k to restore, and be worth less than that upon completion.

My Aunt E, on a recent visit from California, joined Aunt B in the trying task of home redistribution. Together my aunts came upon a Christmas letter saved by my Great Grandfather, a West Virginia farmer born in 1898, known to me as “Gandy.” Though Gandy didn’t achieve his final goal of living to see three centuries (he passed away just months shy of the millennium) he did live to be 101, and in the process gave me a truer perspective on the purpose of personal goal-setting.

Nanny and Gandy

My Great Grandparents, Gandy and Nanny

Aunt B: “Today, while E and I were going through some papers in the room above the attic, we came across an envelope addressed to Nanny and Gandy, post marked Dec 13, 1971. It is a Christmas card from Harry and Emaleen Saville (and children) who lived in Herndon.”

These friends of Gandy’s wrote to him without prior knowledge of his loss: his beloved wife Nanny had passed away less than two weeks before.

Aunt E: “To think that Gandy wanted to weigh in with those thoughts from his side of life was something B and I were so thankful to have been together to share. And all because she, God bless her, is unwilling to just throw the whole box of junk away without sifting through for these treasures. By the way, this was from the bottom drawer of the file cabinet which contained a little packet of these cards (all of which were otherwise throw aways) and years and years worth of old Annual Reports and proxies from Lucent and ATT!!!! Talk about junk – and then, that hidden treasure…”

Though raised in a christian household and extended family, in adulthood I’ve found myself at odds with religion. This new orientation feels less like a choice, and more like a consequence of my gradual awakening to gender inequality. I can’t help but see the imprint of religion, a tool as unpredictable in its overall effect as smartphones, throughout the struggle. God’s name has been invoked time and time again, in every corner of the globe, as justification for the oppression of a gender.

In Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments, a document presented in 1848 at the first ever Women’s Rights convention organized by women, signed by 100 men and women (including key attendee and former slave Frederick Douglass) she writes: “He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.”

Stanton’s literary and spiritual grace lies in her ability to separate an ideal of love or community from it’s maladaptive conduits. The letter that Gandy saved follows this same plumb line, which, despite the fact that Stanton’s assertion remains true 166 years later, I still believe is the one true path to social redemption. Scrawling “SPECIAL” over the envelope before tucking it away, Gandy must have realized (rilized) the same thing, that this letter was for him, in much the same way I had with the second grade students’.

For all the times the thrill of discovery has been dashed (most recently looking up producer Leslie Kong from the back of a Jimmy Cliff record, in the sincerest hopes that it would be a woman I could identify, hungry as I am for additional points of reference for my daughters and me, but it was not so) I would like to gratefully and publicly recognize – to take, if you will – my aunts’ role in the reorientation of my spirituality.

In reconnecting me to my past, they have cast a light into my future.

The contents of the letter, copied from a correspondence written on Christmas Eve 1513, follows:

“A Letter to the Most Illustrious the Contessina Allagia Dela Aldobrandeschi” by Fra Giovanni


There is nothing I can give you which you have not got; but there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take. 
No Heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it to-day. Take Heaven! 
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace!
The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see; and to see, we have only to look. Contessina I beseech you to look.
Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendour, woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the Angel’s hand that brings it to you.
Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty: believe me, that angel’s hand is there; the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing Presence. Our joys, too: be not content with them as joys, they too conceal diviner gifts.
Life is so full of meaning and of purpose, so full of beauty—beneath its covering—that you will find that earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage, then to claim it: that is all! But courage you have; and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country, home.
And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you; not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem, and with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.