If You Gotta Play a Garden Party Again . . .

Every year I swear it’s the last, but here I am again, playing at the annual Samaritan House Secret Garden Tour. I’m stationed in Mariann Hyland’s delightful “jewel box” garden in Neskowin.

I was definitely quitting this year after I wound up on “Scenic Old 101” driving mile after mile of winding, barely paved road. As the minutes ticked by, I knew I was going to be late due to misleading signs and not having paid enough attention to the map. I was tempted to get back on the freeway, buy myself an expensive lunch at some beachside restaurant and let the flowers do without music.

It wasn’t just me. A friend wandered the same direction, and she was using a GPS. So we were both late and both never volunteering for this thing again. Eventually, nearly two hours after leaving home, we turned around, found garden tour headquarters, got directions to our respective gardens and calmed down. The weather was perfect, the flowers were blooming, plant-loving friends were having fun together, and music filled the air. Also wine, cheese, chocolate and salt water taffy.

Neskowin is located a few miles north of Lincoln City, just into Tillamook County. My garden in the Neskowin Village snuggled in the midst of several cottages with their own spectacular gardens. As I alternated between keyboard and guitars, visitors admired the custom-made glass fence panels, the downspouts shaped like fish and turtles and the glorious array of sea air-loving plants. I disrupted the array a bit with all my gear, but at least, as you can see, I dressed in the floral theme.

You might wonder about the black armband. I wasn’t mourning anything. I’ve been suffering with an elbow problem called medial epicondylitis or golfter’s elbow for over a year now. It’s a repetitive stress thing exacerbated by playing the piano. Physical therapy has made it considerably less painful, but it’s still there and probably always will be. The brace helps, but I’m thinking the braces ought to come in colors to match our clothes. I’m going to work on that. 

Playing at the tour is always wonderful because I get to see so many great people, and so many people get to hear me. Also I get to play whatever I want. But there are challenges, too. The guitar-playing guy across the street, who knew every song the Beatles ever recorded, was distractingly loud. People frequently interrupted my music to ask questions like “Is this your garden?” and “What is the name of that plant?” There were cameras everywhere, some of them snapping pictures of me. This year, I saw quite a few people taking pictures with their iPads, too. But in the end, it’s a fun day, and it raises a lot of money for our local homeless shelter.

I came away with grooves in my fret fingers and a rasp in my throat, but ask me again if I’ll do the garden tour next year.


Singing in the Secret Garden

I have survived my annual music marathon, also known as the Sunday of the Samaritan House Secret Garden Tour. Each year I seem to draw the short straw and end up leading and accompanying the choir at both Masses at Sacred Heart Church before rushing to my assigned garden with a car full of instruments and sound equipment to play music for four or five hours outdoors until the last garden junkie has examined every plant and posy in the place.

I’ve belonged to various bands, choirs and ensembles, but these days my non-church gigs are solo affairs. It’s just me and a ton of gear, moving from singing with steel-string guitar to playing instrumentals on classical guitar to mixing vocals with instrumentals on my electronic keyboard. Sometimes I play mandolin, recorder or harmonica, too, all in the interest of maintaining the voice and tender fingertips as long as possible.
Loading all my equipment into the car and getting it set up in the garden is an athletic event in itself, but that’s just the beginning. Every year on the day before the tour, I decide that I should not do this anymore. It’s been 10 years. I don’t get paid. It’s exhausting. People are walking around me socializing and talking about flowers. But when I start to sing out there for friends from all aspects of my life, I start to think well, maybe this isn’t so bad. Halfway through, when my voice is starting to go and my fingers are starting to complain, I wonder if I’ll make it to the end. But then I cross some kind of barrier and want to keep singing and playing forever.
This year I had the added worry of an aching right elbow inflamed with tendonitis. All week, I iced it, wore a brace and tried not to use it. I’m left-handed, but it’s amazing how many things I do with the right hand, how many situations in our lives almost require use of the right hand. Doors and cupboards open in your face if you use the left hand. The gearshift in the car is on the right. I can’t make the cheese slicer work with my left hand. I have discovered that every time I push myself off a chair or the floor or the bed, I use my right hand. The left one doesn’t feel . . . right. The whole thing has been a pain. Why would I antagonize it by playing music all afternoon for free?
Because it’s magic, that’s why. Because I love the sound and the feeling of making music in the garden. At these affairs, I can play anything I want. No need to be liturgically correct or please a picky audience. These people like it all, and there’s something special about acoustic music outdoors. It just sounds good.
This year the gardens were in Toledo, Oregon. I was stationed at the Cook garden, which overlooks the Yaquina River. What a gorgeous place, what wonderful people. Everywhere I looked were beautiful plants and the kind of quirky decorations I love. Flowers growing out of an old washing machine. A giant stone frog. Rusty pans, saw blades and shovel heads hanging among the green plants. The Cooks set up a cover for me to play in case it rained—it did a little, but Oregonians take a vow not to complain. Behind me sat a vintage Porsche. Across the driveway, two roosters crowed between songs. And to my left, the river trickled along, blue and wide.
The garden lovers came in their floppy hats and sturdy shoes, enjoying the gardens made known only to those who buy tickets to the tour. As they walked up and down the paths, taking pictures and gathering the names of their favorite plants, I sent my music into the air. How lucky I felt to be there.
The annual garden tour raises funds for Samaritan House, the homeless shelter in Newport, Oregon. Down-on-their-luck families who move into the shelter not only get a place to sleep but receive help finding jobs and planning their futures so that they can soon move into their own homes.
This morning, I’m tired, my fingers are sore, and my elbow hurts, but I’m happy. It was totally worth it. Again.
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