Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Angel Harp - Chapter 1

Angel Harp
FaithWords (January 26, 2011)
Michael Phillips

Chapter 1

By yon bonnie banks, and by yon bonnie braes, Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond, Where me and my true love were ever wont to gae On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road An’ I’ll be in Scotland afore ye: But me and my true love will never meet again On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

—“Loch Lomond”

It is a terrible thing when dreams die.

I haven’t cherished many dreams in my life. My dreams were quiet and personal. I usually thought of myself as a relatively simple person. I didn’t care about changing the world or being rich, or even for that matter having a fancy home. I could have been content most anywhere.

Everyone wants to be happy, I suppose. I don’t know if I would call that a dream.

There were a few things I had dreamed of, being loved by a good and worthy man and loving him in return, having children and raising them and loving them and being loved by them, grow¬ing old with my husband and watching our sons and daughters mature and blossom and raise children of their own. But one by one those dreams had been taken from me.

My husband is gone now. The circumstances aren’t important. At least I don’t want to dwell on them. They’re too painful. Suffice it to say he is gone.

We had planned to have children, of course, but kept putting it off. First it was the money problems of newlyweds . . . thinking we needed a bigger house before starting a family. . . my husband’s career . . . my own part-time work.

Suddenly years slip by. My husband died and there were no children.

I wasn’t particularly old when I found myself alone, only thirty-four. Not even past my prime, as they say. But it’s old enough to feel old if it comes before you’re ready for it.

My friends told me I needed to get out, to see people, to start “dating” again. What a horrible thought! I could hardly imagine it. Good heavens, I already had a gray hair or two. My hair was either dark blond or light brown, whatever you want to call it, so it hid the occasional grayish strand pretty well. But I knew they were there. I also knew what they meant—that the clock of life kept ticking and I wasn’t a teenager anymore.

It isn’t as if a single woman, a widow—gosh, what a thing to call myself at thirty-four!—can just snap her fingers and suddenly find a line of eligible, successful, sensitive, handsome, nice men in their mid to late thirties lining up at her door. It doesn’t happen that way. I had never considered myself that good-looking. I know men judge differently, but when I looked in the mirror I couldn’t rate my looks at more than three-and-a-half or four

Maybe four-and-a-half.

And when did four-and-a-half turn heads? Ten is the standard in our world.

I’d been told I had a nice smile, but it hadn’t been seen much lately. The people at church told me I ought to go to the singles group. That prospect sounded as bad as dating. Sitting around with a bunch of twenty-somethings noodling on guitars, or with thirty-somethings checking each other out, obviously “looking”—no thanks.

I’m not exactly sure how the next few years passed. If time flies when you’re having fun, it somehow also goes by when you’re not. I continued to work half-days as a teacher’s aide and threw myself into my music. Once a week I drove four hours for a lesson with the harpist I had studied under when I first took up Celtic music years before. I occasionally lugged my small harp to my second-grade class. From that a few private lessons resulted when parents called to ask if I would teach their children on a more regular basis. And when asked to play for weddings or garden parties or to provide background music for a social event or mixer, I usually accepted.

Over the years my little harp studio grew. I added students, then also gradually added harps until I had six in all.

It is hard to describe the personal bond a harpist feels with his or her favorite instrument. A harp is part of your very soul. Even though I had six harps, they were all favorites, for different reasons. Of course my big pedal harp, a Lyon & Healy 15, which I called the Queen, was the most majestic of the six. But my black twenty-six-string Dusty Strings my father had given to me for a birthday years before was perhaps the most special of all. After my husband died I named it “Journey.” I don’t know why—I hadn’t called it anything before that. But a day after the funeral, realizing that this small harp had been with me for a long time and had been through a lot with me, I just started calling it Journey.

I had four other harps as well, two thirty-four-string harps called Aida and Shamrock, which I called by their model names. Then I had two small lap or ballad harps—a very small twenty two-string Irish harp made by Walton which I called the Ring, and a twenty-six-string harp my husband had made from a kit, called the Limerick.

There is a story behind the Walton “Ring.” When my husband proposed to me, knowing of my love for the harp, he asked me, “Would you like a diamond ring, or a harp some day?”

I’m no fool. I knew which cost more . . . by about ten to one. I chose the harp!
So as an “engagement ring” of sorts, he ordered the little ballad harp from Walton in Ireland, had it shipped to us in Canada, and surprised me with it before we were married. Hence, the name.

Five years later we were able to buy the Queen from another local harpist who had decided to sell it, and pay her over several years. Otherwise, at that time in our lives we would never have been able to afford a large pedal harp. We made the final payment just three months before my husband died. I had my two “rings”—the Ring and the Queen—but my husband was gone.

The other harps had come along gradually as I began to give more and more lessons.

What does one person need with six harps? I can imagine someone wondering.

For weddings and parties and church services I nearly always played on my pedal harp. Its sound was so full and large and rich it could fill a cathedral. That was the sound you needed on such occasions. And for outdoor garden receptions or open-air weddings, you needed large volume such that would carry without acoustics helping magnify the sound.

But obviously you couldn’t wheel a sixty-nine-inch-tall, eighty-pound harp into a hospital room. My Dusty Strings portable level harp suited that purpose perfectly. I could carry it in its case with one hand, and it had a rich and vibrant tone that could easily fill a large room.

For my own purposes, the Queen and Journey would have been all I needed . . . along with my sentimental favorite—the Ring!

If you plan to give harp lessons, however, your students have to have something to play and practice on. Some people bought harps. But it is a huge financial commitment for someone to make before they are absolutely certain their initial love for and fascina¬tion with the instrument are going to last long enough to justify it. So I used the four others for loaners and rentals—the two larger student-size harps for older children and adults, the two ballad harps for younger children.

I loved teaching children to play the harp. That was the bright spot in my life. But was it enough in itself to give the rest of my drab existence meaning?

Turning forty didn’t exactly wake me out of my lethargy. At first it just stunned me.

Forty! Good heavens, am I really forty? I thought.

Not that forty is really very old either. There are millions to whom forty would sound pretty good. But if you’ve never been forty, it’s a milestone that means you’re not young anymore. The years are be¬ginning to tick by ever more steadily. Whenever that indefinable thing called one’s “prime” is, anyone can be excused at forty for pausing to wonder if it passed by without their knowing it.

At first I became dreadfully depressed. If ever I’d had the chance to marry again, I had just wasted half my thirties doing nothing about it.

Gradually that phase faded. Then I went through a period of trying to deal with it by forcing myself to look the cold hard facts in the eye and accept them like a grown-up and quit being a cry¬baby. Every day I told myself, “You are forty, you are a widow, you are middle-aged, you have more gray than you can safely keep plucking out, you are going to live the rest of your life alone. Deal with it.”

That was more depressing than telling myself I had just wasted six years! I quickly gave up that tactic, too. Even if my you’re¬ getting-old mantra was true, I didn’t have to keep reminding myself.

A day came I’ll never forget, though I wouldn’t mind forgetting it. It was a nondescript Sunday in November—gray, threatening rain, cold, dreary. I had nothing to do, nowhere to go. There were no lessons scheduled. I saw nobody. As dusk began to fall about five-thirty that afternoon, I realized the whole day had gone by and I’d not seen another soul all day. I was sitting on the couch of my living room, and from out of nowhere I just started to cry. For no reason, I just began to cry.

The sad truth had finally hit home that I was lonely. I was alone in the world . . . and it felt awful.

I cried myself to sleep on the couch, woke up about ten in pitch black, cold and hungry, and dragged myself to bed.

A week or two later I had a dream. I mean an actual dream, at night in my sleep.

I think my husband was the focus of it, but I can’t remember. It’s not important. You know how sometimes you have dreams and the story of the dream, if you want to call it that, fades but the feelings it arouses remain with you. This was one of those.

I woke up crying. The words were ringing in my head: Don’t let me die, don’t let me die.

I was so sad and lonely at that moment. Strange to say, I felt even lonelier than after I realized I would never see my husband again. I just lay in the dark and sobbed and sobbed until I could sob no more.

Finally I got up and went to the bathroom, blew my nose, splashed my face with cold water and tried to take a deep breath, then went back to bed. I turned the wet pillow over and lay down on my back and just stared up at the ceiling of my bedroom in the darkness.

The words didn’t go away.

Don’t let me die, don’t let me die.

As I had returned to wakefulness a few minutes earlier, with fleeting phantasms of my husband evaporating like mist from my brain, I had the sense that he was calling out for me to help him, that I might somehow have been able to save him. No wonder such an uncontrollable sadness flooded over me. It was like blaming myself all over again for what had happened.

But gradually I realized that it wasn’t my husband speaking at all. It was the dream itself. The dream was saying, “Don’t let me die.”

I had no idea what it meant.

After an hour or so, I began to doze. When I next came to my¬self, light was visible behind the curtains of my bedroom. It was morning.

Almost the moment I opened my eyes, again came the words from the middle of the night, though now slightly changed: Don’t let the dream die.

I got out of bed and threw back the curtains. Yesterday’s rain had passed and a brilliant pink-and-orange sunrise greeted me.

And I knew that it was indeed a terrible thing when dreams died. I had given in to lethargy and despondency and loneliness. I had let hope slip away. I had allowed my dreams to fade.

As I stood looking out on that bright sunrise, I thought to myself that maybe it wasn’t too late.

Some of my dreams were gone forever. I could never get my husband back.
But I could not let them all die. There were still dreams worth dreaming.

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