Tall grass Prairie Preserve, Kansas

Friday, September 28, 2012

shapeimage_2-9Heading to Kansas to sing High Holy Days again, I decided to go out there a day early and visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. I had seen an article about it in the National Parks magazine and it looked incredibly beautiful. About an hour and a half north east of Wichita, in the Flint Hills, it was a bit too far to go back and forth in one day. I also wanted to walk on the back country trails early in the morning, before the heat of the day and treeless expanse left me exposed to bake in the sun. That didn’t end up being a problem as the weather the day I was there was overcast, drizzling and cool, actually great weather for a hike and a welcome respite from summer drought and temperatures in the 100s. My flights on Friday were all delayed and I drove to my motel in Strong City in the dark. The next morning, I discovered that Strong City was even smaller that Stanley, ID, with one bar, one restaurant, a hardware/fishing tackle store, all closed early in the morning. At the small grocery store that was open, I bought some OJ an apple and a muffin, and set out to walk the trails in the preserve.
I first walked the lower trails near the creek. They reminded me of the Great Plains Nature Center trails in Wichita that I always enjoy visiting. At this early hour there was plenty of bird activity. Later in the morning I took the bus tour from the visitors center that went out into the center of the preserve. The park ranger was entertaining and informative, and by now it was nice to be on the bus since it was actually raining. With the mist and cloud cover, we got totally disoriented on the winding road and had no idea which direction we had come from. After the hourlong ride, I set out on another trail that went in a different direction. The fog and drizzle was clearing a bit, and it was magical to be out in the middle of such a vast and beautiful expanse. I had a little trail map, so I never felt lost, but I did feel deliciously alone and quiet. I think I walked about five or six miles, and on my way back I even caught sight of the bison herd which had been hiding from the bus tour.
Finally back at my rental car, I returned to the one restaurant in town that was now open, and had a wonderful late lunch of fried pickles – amazing – and fantastic grilled cheese. I’m sure anything would have tasted good, but this was a surprisingly funky and foody place. I headed back to Wichita and now got to enjoy the beautiful scenic route through the Flint Hills that I had missed the night before.
It was a welcome change to rehearse for Rosh Hashana a day after flying, instead of right off the plane. My voice felt rested and hydrated, and the new technical approach seemed to be working. The services went well. I don’t know if members of the congregation could tell a difference in my singing or not. I had plenty of time to practice the new habits I have been trying to instill: a slight change in posture, tongue position, feeling of vowel shape. This was certainly a very different experience from last year when the singing seemed to go by itself and I could just hang back and observe. Now I was actively trying to go a different way, while still staying relaxed and taking advantage of the confidence born of many years of doing the same service.
The services for Yom Kippur seemed more challenging. The days at home in between were filled with student auditions, teaching and lots of administrative work to get the semester going. Arriving back in Kansas the second time, I was a bit scattered from all the activity. Singing Kol Nidre, I had moments of doubt: is this new approach working, has it been worth all the effort I have put into it, am I even singing in tune, or is my vibrato way out of control? As we read the responsive reading before the Janowsky Shema Kolenu, I was suddenly filled with a yearning that the text spoke directly to: “let the strength of our longing for You help us to grow in the wise use of our powers….” It felt like a wholesome desire, perhaps coming from right intention and right effort. As I sang the words in Hebrew I felt a surge of energy and commitment to let my voice pour out without doubt, without technical fussing. “Hear our voice, have compassion on us, help us to return to you…” It was a wonderful few minutes of concentrated presence and vocal and expressive freedom.
The six hours of singing the next day had its ups and downs. By the second Torah service, my middle voice was really tired and didn’t have much sound left to give. The soft, sad pieces in the memorial service felt wonderful, however, and I actually had some umph left for a rousing finish. Maybe it is like that every year and I forget. More likely, my voice is not what it once was – as the lyrics for Dragon Mother say (keep an eye out for more on that!) and I am trying to do the best that I can with what I’ve got. Impermanence, renunciation, equanimity. Everyone in the congregation was deeply appreciative which always means a lot to me.

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