Kelley Hunt and my 16th annual six-day Brave Voice, Sept. 19-24 in Council Grove, Kansas. We have strong Covid protocols in place to keep everyone protected (all participants must show proof of vaccination, we’ll be spread out and will use masks for big group meetings), and the White Memorial Camp is also very committed to keeping us all healthy and safe. Everyone you need will be right at the camp too, including delicious, healthy meals (with vegan and vegetarian options).
Why should you join us at this retreat? Here’s some reasons:
Magic: Yes, there is real magic, and it happens when you get a group of people who love to create — write, sing, make art, or just dip their toes into any of it — together in a sacred and relaxing place, mix in vast vistas of the lake and surrounding hills, add excellent food and deep sleep, and let everyone find their own best answers.
Rest: There’s something about being away from home, surrounded by water and prairie, big skies and gentle breezes (with an occasional good rain) that makes for good sleeping weather. Plus, we hold open afternoons for people to create, wander, explore, collaborate, or take naps.
Perspective: We all need to step out from the ordinary noise of our daily lives and see who we are now and what we have to say to ourselves and others from a new vantage point.
Courage: Brave Voice is a courageous place where people are daring to create and listen to their hearts’ songs. Just being in that space give us back more of ourselves.
Community: People make friendships, sometimes even for life, here. We witness each other, listen carefully, and find clarity and connection in community.
Music: We sing, we’re sung to, we listen, we explore (no one has to sing alone or even sing at all), and oh, Kelley Hunt does a private concert for us!
Writing: Writing is a way of knowing what’s true for us and what no longer holds water. In listening to each other, we find our way to our own strongest words and truest stories. I also do a private reading just for us.
Surprises: The happy kind of surprises abound — maybe fresh pineapple or a new song (even if you’ve never written one), maybe a shooting star, a wonderful dream, or a double rainbow. Expect to be surprised in good ways.
You: Coming to Brave Voice brings you home to yourself even more, and hey, don’t you need a great retreat right now?
Flash Sale: We’re having a special sale to make Brave Voice more affordable for you right now — Aug. 18-22. Come visit our registration page here for the details of how to save close to $100.
Kansas roses struggle once summer gets its heat on, but I have found a land where everything is coming up roses: the Pacific Northwest. We were there for Aunt Wilma’s memorial and the family reunion around that gathering, which also included a very special rose garden made from something and by someone Wilma loved very much.
But first, the number of roses in the western Oregon and Washington was dizzying and surely in infinite multiples to rose meccas here. Walking around our friends Carl and Sara’s Vancouver, WA neighborhood, I was dazzled by bundles of blossoms, some tumbling over themselves in excitement and others just standing big and bold in skies that get cool and mildly breezy most evenings. We went to the Oregon Garden, a botanical wonderland of winding gardens mazing together and apart, including a beautiful rose garden. We waltzed to live music in the Portland Peninsula rose garden. Everywhere, there was something to stop me in my tracks and made me bend over carefully, checking to make sure there’s not a bee in the center of the rose before I inhaled it.
But the highlight of the rose tour bloomed in an Auburn, WA backyard, where our cousin’s son Justin, in honor of Wilma, who is his grandmother, created a magical memorial. He finished the Sir Justin’s Rose Garden at the Chase Place just in time to invite all of us to enjoy the three concentric circles of the roses Wilma chose, tended, and loved. The roses were part of a garden she organized volunteers to care for at the retirement facility where she and her late husband Ron lived. The garden was also in the pathway of an oncoming bulldozer that was to way for more housing, so Justin, 21 years old and balancing his college studies, jumped in. With help from his family, he transported a whole lot of big, mature, and sometimes very heavy rose bushes.
The garden circles around a brand-new gazebo Justin and his dad Jim built, finding and rehabilitating some old wood from here and there and finishing it all just in the nick of time for us to step into, shoes off because the polyurethane was still drying, and slide across. All in all, it’s a gorgeous tribute made of wood and flowers, sweat and memory, to his grandparents.
Some of the rose bushes were way taller than me and almost all were thriving like nobody’s business (only one was sluggish but it looks like it’s likely to snap to greater life in the future). Justin created a detailed chart of what’s where and did many hours of research to figure out what each rose was. But whatever each was called, what grabbed me most was the scent, some smelling exactly like rose essential oil and others vastly richer and more intoxicating. I made it my business to smell a flower from each of the 70 bushes.
All those roses took me back to my own grandfather, my dad’s dad who loved growing roses in the tiny backyard of his rental house in Brooklyn. I remember leaning into each flower as a kid, renewed by what I seeing and smelling. While I’m a lover of many flowers, I do have some I especially adore, especially a wildly fragrant rose (or lilac or lily-of-the-valley or iris or hyacinth), which brings me backwards and forward in time at once.
We wandered the rose garden in that twilight time for a long stretch, marveling at them as a rainbowy hot air balloon sailed over. I imagined Wilma walking this garden, so delighted to see her babies — human and otherwise — flourishing, and as nightfall came, we walked the paths between the roses, scattering some of Wilma and Ron’s ashes into the roots of each rose bush.
So that’s what went down with all these roses rising up, reminding me how much a flower can tell the story of a legacy of love and care.
Martin Swinger, a virtuoso singer and songwriter, died suddenly in early July, leaving behind his husband (and partner of 35 years) Brian and many broken hearts in his Asbury Park, N.J. home community, and prior to that, central Maine, where he was a mainstay of the music scene for years. But when I think of Martin, I see him at my kitchen table, serenading the then-coordinator of the TLAN, Deb Hensley, volunteers Nancy Hubble and Laura Ramberg, and me as we stuffed folders for the 2014 Power of Words conference.
He was like this: always bringing joy, humor, and the power of music to wherever he landed. He was gifted at helping in multiple other ways too: for the conference, he coordinator participant transportation, helped Deb with many pieces of the conference coordination, and generally brought a sense of peace and homecoming to all of us.
Then again, Martin knew how vital hospitality and art are to this world. He grew up gay in the South, falling in love with music and books of all kinds. In recent years, he went on to be quite decorated as a songwriter, winning many notable big-time contests and performing across the country, even to the delight of the late Pete Seeger and very-much alive Vance Gilbert and John Waters. His seven CDs won lots of well-deserved awards, including from American Song Competition, SolarFest, Rosegarden Coffeehouse and more. Audiences have adored him for decades for his warm and vibrant voice and eclectic blend of Americana, swing and jazz, traditional music, show tune, Klezmer music, and improvisation. Deb and Martin sang together like angels from an enchanted land, including in the group Brio.
Deb says of Martin: “Martin was a true prince of friend to me and to so many others who knew and loved him. He had a heart the size of Mars and talent to match. Frost says, “Nothing gold can stay.” But Martin’s songs will stay. Oh yes they will. And so will his love.”
His generosity extended in other ways: when one of our keynote performers for the conference didn’t show up, Martin graciously volunteered to perform on the spot and for free (although we did extend to him a small stipend anyway). When he performed, he lifted a full house of conference goers, who had been waiting a while for the keynote, to their feet with original songs such as “Betty Boop and Buddha,”“Consider the Oyster,” and my favorite, “Little Plastic Part.” That song, about how breaking a tiny part of a vacuum that “makes the whole thing work” speaks to having a little part of our heart broken so that it doesn’t work anymore.
I can’t help thinking about how Martin himself was a little vital part with a big impact himself.
All my life, I heard the old folk song “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” as “Go Tell Aunt Rhoda,” and since I had an Aunt Rhoda, this seemed very fortuitous indeed. Sitting on my porch so many years after encountering that old song, I’m trying to absorb the reality that it’s not the old grey goose that’s dead but my beloved Aunt Rhoda.
Ebullient. Joyful. Enthusiastic. All of that, plus a great laugh and spectacular soprano voice with a propensity for belting out musical numbers — that’s my Aunt Rhoda. My mother’s oldest sister, she and her family were an intimate part of our family’s lives, often living relatively close by whether we were in Brooklyn or central New Jersey. That’s no surprise given how close my mom and her sister were, and it was all to my siblings’ and my benefit to get to see Rhoda and Uncle Jerry as well as our cousins Renee and Michael constantly.
While we kids all played games, like pretending to be the Monkees or the Beatles, my mom and Rhoda downed coffee and talked for hours. Yet when one of us would poke our head in, Rhoda would call us, “What’s wrong, Sweetheart?” more as a song than a response (as my sister Lauren reminded us at the burial service that Rhoda often sang what she had to say). When Jerry was in the room, the rapid-fire wit and humor would overflow, and we’d be alternately cracking up and trying to singing along.
At family dinners or holidays, it was downright expected that at some point, Rhoda and Renee (who also has an amazingly beautiful voice) would harmonize on a Rogers and Hammerstein musical number or the like. Since she was rushed to the hospital last week, I’ve watched a little video at least six times of them singing “There’s a Place For Us” from West Side Story.
But her joie de vivre and grace wasn’t just when she sang. My last conversation with her, me on speaker phone with her and Renee (parked outside a Wal-Mart), took place earlier this month. Rhoda was ecstatic that, after 15 months, they were going into a store where she could power down the aisles after she spent the pandemic extremely isolated due to age, health issues, and the downright risk of living in an area (New Jersey) where the virus really took hold. I was calling to invite them to my mother’s 80th birthday celebration next November, and Rhoda was beside herself with joy about our whole family being together again and about celebrating her fiercely beloved sister.
All of her love was fierce, full, and unconditional. Renee, who lived with her and helped take care of her in so many ways for so many years, told us at the burial service that her mom was her biggest defender and most enthusiastic fan. Although Rhoda would famously roll her eyes at times, her love was never in doubt.
Now, after a short and unexpected illness, she’s gone, and in the last week, our family went from 0 to 100 on the Rhoda front, a panorama of worry, prayer, wishes, “tell her I love her” messages, goodbyes, and for most of us, a whole lot of travel. Back home after a whirlwind trip to New Jersey involving layovers in Detroit and Minneapolis, rental cars, trains and trams, and lot of walking, I’m now back to where I started: trying to grapple with the loss of my sweetheart Aunt Rhoda.
Wherever she is, I hope there’s singing involved as well as peace. Wherever we who love her are, I pray for the same, with love and gratitude for all.
Sunday evening, we sat on our back deck around an outdoor table and a wedding gift from Aunt Wilma and Uncle Ron 36-plus years ago, a wonky folding table. It was the first in-person gathering in 15 months of KAW Council, our bioregional community, and after a humid, muddy walk together in the wetlands, it was heavenly to to dwell in friendship and a cool breeze, sharing big salads, chocolate-covered almonds, and what we’re learning in the pandemic. When it was my turn, I talked about how much I loved and have learned from Aunt Wilma, one of many vibrant aunts I inherited when I married Ken.
“You’ll need this more than you can imagine,” Wilma and Ron told us when they gave us that folding table along with four sturdy brown metal folding chairs. At 25 years old, I didn’t understand how much we’d use the table, which we’d pull out often for special appearances at Hanukkah parties, Thanksgiving dinners, game nights with friends, graduations or Bat Mitzvah gatherings, and in the aftermaths of big deaths that brought lots of people and casseroles to our home.
It was the first of many life-changing gifts from Wilma. When our first child, Daniel, was born at the Topeka birthing center, he struggled for life and ended up in the local Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for a week. The care he received was helpful at first, then over the top as the doctors treated this 7-pound-plus baby as a premmie, not letting us hold him. In between pumping milk and freaking out, I took solace in the presence of Wilma and Ron, who were visiting at the time as they did regularly to spend weeks to help my in-laws Alice and Gene with the farm and house. We told the NICU staff that Wilma and Ron were my parents so that they could join us in taking turns putting a hand through the isolette opening to comfort Daniel. Wilma was also there in a small room with Alice while I breast-fed Daniel for the first time. The NICU staff said he was too weak and likely couldn’t do it, but Wilma just said, “Pshaw! He’ll be fine.” She was right.
Over the decades this is how it went with Wilma and Ron, who died four years ago. They showed up, they cleaned gutters and washed dishes, they jollied our babies along and read them books, and they talked up a storm with lots of accompanying photos about their latest adventures helping other family members across the country. They lived to serve, without ever employing a holier-than-thou attitude (even if Ron was a retired minister) or ever judging us. Instead, they embodied a truckload of humor, patience, fortitude, common sense, and even a bit of whimsy on occasion.
I remember Wilma leaning toward a 5-year-old Daniel to show him how to pit a cherry while singing with Alice, “Would you like to make a pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?”, a variation of the old traditional song. I see her holding one of our babies on her lap at Furr’s Cafeteria and telling me she really wasn’t hungry anyway so that I could eat unfettered. I see her pinning a corsage on Alice’s dress right before Alice and Gene’s 50th anniversary. I see her and Ron at our kids’ bar mitzvahs, laughing, crying, singing, and chanting along with us even though they’re deep dish Methodists. I hear her interrupting Ron to say she only dated him because she felt sorry for him when I asked them how they met, both of them eager to laugh and reminisce, contradict each other and laugh some more.
Through the years, Wilma modeled service with a smile, grace under pressure, and what it looks like to arrive early with lots of photos and stay late until the last floor was swept. Like any proper middle child — she was the middle sister out of five — she was a born peace-maker and exercised tolerance as an extreme sport.
She also gave us, our family, and our community a gift that will go on forever, long after her and our lives are over. Wilma did everything possible to help us save the family land, where we built our home 26 years ago. She and Ron instinctively understood and shared our dream of preserving this land (where her great-parents made a home 150 or so years ago). In her last year of life, she did all they could to support us purchasing the family farm so that we could put it in a conservation easement (preserved for perpetuity). Protecting and continuing to steward this mix of prairie and woodlands has been our lifelong dream, and Wilma made it come true.
The night we fittingly sung Wilma’s praises from the back deck, overlooking a big field leading to forest one direction and prairie we’ve replanted, was also the night Wilma died. She was pushing 97 years, and her daughter Judy tells us she went out after a day or more mouthing the words to old hymns they played her on Youtube. She modeled faith and love even while dying.
For those us still living, there’s the squeaky music of an old folding table that gives me faith. As I was putting it away, after I heard the news of Wilma’s passing, I thought about how I’m going to give my kids folding tables when they get older. After all, you never know what loving presence is going to show up in your life, and you want to make plenty of room for them at the table.