Tag Archives: Harp

Finding Balance

by Kate

I cannot do everything at once. Lets start with laundry. I have not been caught up on laundry since Francisco was born. It has prevented me from using cloth diapers which triggered a whole heap of guilt in my country girl in the city soul. I am happy to report that I started using cloth diapers again yesterday and (so far) it is going splendidly. My theory is that now I will be forced to do laundry more often.  Also it is almost spring and in the spring I hang all the laundry on the line. I am much, much better at getting the laundry done when half the job involves stretching my limbs under an open sky.

But more to the point, there is this rise and fall, depths of desperation and peak of elation pattern to my life of late. Let me paint a couple brief pictures for you.

I am pushing a jogging stroller (with Olympia in it wearing a velvet party dress and a blanket tucked over her coat and hat and boots and with my bags containing sheet music and library books etc. precariously stacked above her) up a steep city street one handed, using the other hand to boost up and nurse the baby in the sling under my winter coat. I am sweating because it is quite the climb and because I overstayed a tiny bit at Teresa’s house to do one last thing for her after making her breakfast this morning and as a result I am running late (again) to punch into the Memory Care Unit at Canterbury Place and spend half an hour playing the harp. I am trying to get F to nurse as much as he can so he will be relaxed and happy and I won’t have to awkwardly play the harp for the dementia patients WHILE wearing him in the sling and nursing him and using a pashmina to (hopefully) cover my breast while doing so. There is another block uphill to go and I feel like it is too much.

Then.

I am in the sunny room overlooking an enclosed garden, in the Memory Care Unit. I am wearing jeans and boots and long dangling earrings and playing the harp, to the delight of some of the lined familiar faces in the room. There are others I suspect enjoy the harp as well, though their heads are bowed. Francisco is being held in the arms of the beautiful stylish black aide who has 3 year old twins herself, and he is cooing at all the old people and just won a smile from a man who hasn’t smiled all week. Olympia is in the middle of the room, twirling like Shirley Temple. She has been sitting still with apple juice and graham crackers that she knows to expect, looking at my books of music, and now she is dancing. I am proud of her.  There is so much peace and joy in the room, and in this moment, for me.

Or…

Maybe it is the hills. The hills and the stuff, the big bursting bags of badly packed stuff that I carry around with me, the stuff that is not goldfish or wipes or diapers, those I either don’t carry or don’t have enough of. The thought of the drive up the hill to the Dance Studio after loading a toddler and a baby and my overflowing bag of fringed dresses and huge carimbo skirts and hair flowers and a sequined hat and ballroom shoes and the spiked silver five inch heels, and carrying them all up the steep steps after crossing the icy parking lot with a shrill winter wind whipping across the street feels like too, too much. I feel fat and tired and am castigating myself for trying too hard and not staying home and doing my laundry.

Then.

There are flamenco dancers pounding patterns on the other side of the long studio, samba drums on the stereo on our side. Francisco is asleep in the midst of heaps of costuming after a long conversation consisting of much cooing with a beautiful Brazilian woman. I am sweeping a skirt through the air and spinning through a swirl of rose and gold. Olympia is underfoot at my right side in the midst of the dancers, grinning and leaping joyfully but so far I haven’t knocked her over. I strap on the five inch heels I will wear for a Fat Tuesday samba performance at a nursing home, the one at the top of the hill, the one where my harp is, shaking my head at the ridiculous nature of my life.

I am trying to find balance. True to my nature, for me this means samba dancing in platform heels for elderly people, accompanied by a toddler and a fat five month baby. It’s not wonder this involves so much lurching wildly from despair to elation.

And now, I really must do a load of laundry.

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Winter Harpist

by Kate

I play the harp.

harpist fantastic hat

My harp is a Troubadour. It’s a lever harp about five feet tall. Tall enough to make a dramatic statement- but small enough for a six foot tall farm girl harpist to heft and carry hither and yon.

troubadour harp red barn asparagus

After the golden fronds of asparagus have bowed beneath the frost and autumn turns to early winter is my favorite time to play the harp. Advent, Hanukkah, and Christmas music is made for the harp. This is quite literally true, as much of the music I am playing was written with harps or similar instruments in mind. The pieces I am playing are haunting and holy and lovely.

christmas harpist pittsburgh kate stapleton

Of course I rarely (er, never) really play my harp in a frosty field or forest full of holly berries. This year, with a three month old and two year old and demanding schedule of dancing and caring for elderly people and maaaybe doing my laundry someday, I purposely avoided taking any additional Christmas gigs beyond my regular bimonthly visit to the Alzheimers and Dementia unit up the hill. However, a couple grocery store gigs fell into my lap, and I took them. I’m glad I did.

I love grocery store harp gigs. After spending a good ten years of my life in or directly around the grocery business, the aisles of a grocery store feel like home, but to be honest I prefer to descend upon those aisles in a sweeping ballgown with a harp. My favorite thing about grocery store harp gigs, though, is the reaction of the customers. No one expects to see a harpist when they trudge into a grocery store, so there is often a magical sense of wonder when they come around a corner and find one.

Giant Eagle harpist Pittsburgh, PA

And so in this early winter season I was to be found with my Troubadour harp playing haunting, regal, holy harp music… right next to a huge display of Steelers Merchandise near a pharmacy at a local Giant Eagle Grocery store. And it was lovely.

Canterbury Castle in the Sky

by Kate

 I read too much. I know the current emphasis is all on coaxing and bribing kids to read more, as though reading is an unalloyed virtue in and of itself. It isn’t. There are lots of trashy and downright awful books out there along with the good ones, and then there are the reams of  pure fluff. Sometimes I compare and contrast the current vogue for praising any and all reading with the stern Victorian admonitions against novels and wonder which school of thought is more realistic.  In any case, reading is an incredibly effective escapist past-time, which comes in really handy when you are growing up in a howling mob of nine children. My father, who never attends a sports event without a stack of magazines and library books, can attest to this.

The exorbitant amount of time that I spent reading while growing up fed an equally extravagent imagination.  I ran through the woods in torn silk remnents of bridesmaids dresses which caught on brambles and burrs but didn’t deter me from the palace grounds of my imagination. When I was 15, I became enamoured of donning a long thick cloak and wafting about the ridgetops in the mist, singing little ballads and pretending I was in Ireland. My brothers, who milked cows and had actual social interactions with our neighbors, were deeply humiliated and begged me to stop.

Luckily for me, I have been able to take this penchant for bringing the drama of novels into ordinary life and channel it into my work as a harpist. When I play the harp in public I make sure to dress the part. Voluminous ballgowns, pearls, hair flowing down the middle of my back- it adds much more depth to the performance, in my opinion, and also makes up for my rather mediocre skills and repertoire. I really think it works. I may not be a virtouso, but I am confident that I bring joy to the audiences I play for. These audiences are often made up of senior citizens, at retirement homes. Many of them are partially deaf. In that case the costume is more than half of the performance.

Recently I have begun playing often at Canterbury Place, a huge rambling stone and glass structure at the top of the steep hill running up my street. The original building was an Episcopal Church Home built 150 years ago as a home for orphans and elderly women living in genteel poverty. In the 1980’s, a massive addition was completed, with a glass walled aerie six floors up overlooking the city of Pittsburgh.

The only picture that I have that shows the size of the whole building is this one, with Canterbury Place in the background.

Yesterday, I was asked to play for the cocktail hour preceding a candlelight dinner for the residents. My harp was already there, tucked in a corner of the tiny historic 150 year old chapel, so I threw on a (wrinkled) hot pink 1940’s style ballgown and billowed up the street. I took the elevator up to the sixth floor, somehow managing to cart my harp, music stand, two large bags, and a camera.

I set the harp up in a large room with a fireplace, plate glass windows, and an ice sculpture.

I set the harp next to a massive antique grand piano, towering potted plant, and fantastic view. I apologize for the low quality of the pictoral evidence, as I was busy playing the harp and negotiating the swirling folds of my dress.

After playing, I wandered through the library.

And looked out the windows, trying and failing to capture the beauty of the view.

Here is a little story for you. A few years ago I worked in an office. At night, I curled up in an old armchair and drank wine and read the entire works of Jane Austen. I’d only read Pride and Prejudice growing up, and due to an unfortunate Christmas present that you can ask Colleen about, I happened to possess several of the rest of her novels. I spent a full month or two wandering through the mansions of Austen’s world, and at work I would stare past my computer and into space, dreaming about living in a huge rambling old mansion, wandering through the corridors into the library, reading and playing the harp, having genteel conversations and taking walks in the rain. (Here I go again with the walking in the rain. I blame the books entirely.) I couldn’t imagine an existence wherein those were my only responsibilities. I still can’t, although I have been startled in the past couple years by how often the pattern of my life has taken those rough forms, much more than it resembles my time in an office. However, I am thrilled by the fact that by dint of my side job as a harpist at a genteel senior citizens community, I regularly wander through unknown corriders into libraries with sweeping views of the city, play upon the harp in salons with large chandeliers, and perhaps best of all sweep down the staircase in a trailing ballgown. Even if it is wrinkled.

I am constantly amazed and amused by the manner in which dreams turn to reality.

Mother’s Day Lullaby

by Kate

This mother’s day, I will put on pearls and a billowing ballgown. I will load my harp into the car and my husband will load me and the baby, and off we will go for my performance at a nursing home High Tea. The white haired elegant elderly women will tell me that I play like an angel and that my curly haired baby is beautiful. They will ask me when I learned to play the harp, and if this is my first baby. They always do.

The answer to these questions is complicated and intertwined.

I first fell in love with the harp when I was 18 and stumbled upon a woman playing a Celtic harp. I was entranced by the quality of the rippling music, and decided I wanted to learn to play the instrument. My parents told me that this was a great idea- and that I should buy one. With nine children on a Catholic journalist/organic farming salary, there was no way they could buy me one. This seemed reasonable to me, and with the first paycheck from my first job I bought a tiny three octave harp and a copy of “Teach Yourself to Play the Folk Harp.” I made various attempts to teach myself to play, but my world was full of siblings and senior year and heading off to college, and the harp became more of a unique decorating piece than anything else.

This changed, along with everything else in my life, when I was 21 years old and became pregnant. I was unmarried, had just left college, between jobs, between houses, completely adrift and at sea in the world. Just before I found out I was pregnant, I had been planning to move to Peru to do volunteer work in an orphanage there. Instead I was contemplating the end of my life as I knew it, and the beginning of the life of my child.

It took three months of praying and fighting and sobbing and writing for me to decide to give my baby up for adoption. As the eldest of nine, I knew that I could be a good mother. What I kept having to face was that I could not be a father. I felt that it was crucially important for my child to have a mother and a father who would love each other and help each other raise their children. The decision was agonizing, but continually resonated with me as the right choice.

I was living in a silent apartment with my Great Aunt in Chicago and had all the time in the world to face my present and my future. It was terrifying. I read endless books, walked the city streets, and slowly fell deeper and deeper in love with my unborn child. I also began to pour myself into learning to play the harp.  I felt that I had so little to give to this child who I loved more each day. Playing every day became my gift for the child and my hope for the future. Slowly, over the course of the months, my fingers stumbled less upon the strings and began to fly.

Brigid Maureen, my first child, was born on May 8th, 2001, a few days before Mother’s Day. The fruit trees were in bloom and the sky was blue and the world was beautiful. On Mother’s Day the adoptive parents came to mass at St. Peter’s on the ridge with my family, and after mass our home was full of roses for all the mothers.

In some ways for me the adoption process was like those big bouquets of roses. Deeply beautiful, vivid, full of thorns. There were hard days and hard years and an incredible depth of pain, but out of the suffering came such incredible beauty. I was broken and I learned a depth of compassion that I could not have learned in any other way. I learned what it really meant to love selflessly, and to put the welfare of another before my own.

Brigid’s adoptive parents, Chris and Michelle, are two of the most incredibly generous, loving, and self-giving people I have ever met. Their love for God, for each other and for their five children (Brigid is the eldest) is incandescent. I have learned so much from them.

I also did learn how to play the harp. While I was pregnant with Brigid, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep playing after I gave her up because it would be too sad. Instead, during the months and years that followed, playing the harp was often my greatest joy. These days, the ability to play means that I can help support our family. Last year on April 5th, I gave birth to my second daughter, Olympia Julianna. In the hospital, one of the first calls I received as I held my newborn baby was from a nursing home asking if I could play for them on Mother’s Day. I smiled and thought of Brigid, as I always do. I said yes.

I thought that learning to play the harp would be a gift for my child. In the end, it was a crucially important gift from her to me. Thank you, Brigid Maureen. Happy 10th birthday!

Love, Kate

More posts about adoption:

Enough

September in the Orchard

Adoption Interview Project 2011

A Different Place

Blushing Brides and a Bitter Bagpiper

Kate

This weekend I played the harp for a thousand frenzied brides.

More accurately, I attempted to play with the baby on my lap, stood near the harp with my arm draped over it in an ornamental manner, and wandered around the floor of the convention center exploring the bizarre world of Bridal Shows, including a booty shaking boy band dancing to the Black Eyed Peas, one member of whom slipped and fell down on his aforementioned booty. This particular bridal show was held at the David L. Lawrence Convention center, named after the first (Irish!) Catholic governer of Pennsylvania. I am utterly ignorant regarding architecture, particularly modern, but I love the way the convention center swoops out over the Allegheny River, the huge glass vistas overlooking the water and bridges, and the way the convention center floor is illuminated by great shafts of light. So often indoor expositions are painful in part because you are walking around under eye busting flourescents all day in a clatter of painful ear piercing noises. Here, the glass rises up and lets in the sky.

All right, so my brief research into the history of the building does indicate that there was a fatal truss collapse just before it opened, followed by a section of the loading dock giving way under the weight of a semi and falling into the “water feature” below, all of which supports my distrust of fancy modern architecture.

Still, the sunlight did a nice job of illuminating a thousand frenzied brides let loose in a whirl of tulle, chiffon, rhinestones, pearls, slate coasters, and thousand dollar china.

The light created some particularly beautiful shadows.

Here is my favorite moment of calm in the midst of the storm.

Make no mistake, however, it was a storm. A storm of women of all shapes and sizes wearing convenient labels- bride, bridesmaid, mother of the bride- many of whom were tottering about in sky high heels. There is something about a bridal show that drives women to dress as though they are starring in their own personal romantic comedy. This meant lots of interesting fashions, and heels heels heels.

These red heels may have been the simplest and classiest pair there. By the end of the day there were multiple limping, barefoot women staggering around the floor, staring with glazed eyes at the confections, both pastry and dress varieties thereof. Last year I wore stilletos to this event. I was also eight months pregnant. I identify completely with the suffering of the staggerers. This year I was able to periodically set the baby down, which was preferable. I also enlisted the services of the Utter Romantic Christina, who was thrilled to help wrangle the baby and explore the convention center while dreaming about misty veils and place settings. She had roughly eight hundred thousand times more fun than my long suffering husband would have had being dragged to this event.

Christina was enthralled by the place settings

The various princess-like accoutrements


The peacock cake

And the flower arrangements dripping with crystals

Wait, what is that booth featured above called? Flowers in the Attic? Flowers in the Attic!? I am pretty sure that is a young adult novel featuring a very, very unhealthy interfamilial relationship between children locked in an attic. This is madness. Then again, the theme of the Wagnerian opera that Here Comes the Bride is lifted from is also about a horribly failed fiasco of a marriage between siblings. It is at this point that we hit upon the inescapable fact that American brides are pretty much insane, and I introduce my favorite part of the day: the Bitter Bagpiper.

When I arrived at my booth at the beginning of the Expo, the bagpiper who had been assigned to share it was already there, looking gloomy and glum and full of a deep Scottish malaise. He was dressed for the occasion from head to toe but looked deeply apprehensive and understandably tortured at the thought of sharing the next five long hours of his life with a roomfull of crazed brides in an explosion of chocolate and tulle. He expressed a deep desire to run full tilt to the nearest bar and take a couple of steadying shots, but instead, to my delight, he took comfort in a quart of Wisconsin Whisky. I think the milk did help him through, somehow.

There was something strangely comforting about having a bitter bagpiper to accompany the overpowering saccharine sweetness of a bridal show. All in all it was a great adventure, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I look forward to playing the expo again next year, and to never having to get married ever again.