May they be lifted up....

Our love and compassion go out to the people of China as we prepare for our departure on Monday. There is no way to comprehend the magnitude of suffering that has enveloped this country, as well as Myanmar with it's own tragic death toll. All I know is music heals, music touches hearts and souls without any words being expressed, therefore we will be able to transcend the language barriers as we express our love for our brothers and sisters, wherever they may be crying out. We will be dedicating each concert given in China to the victims of this disaster, a disaster no one called down upon themselves and no one deserved. Life is fragile, this we know, so in the words of Leonard Bernstein, "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before".

Truly, no man is a island.

Bless the men, women and children....

Saturday, May 31, 2008


This assortment comes from the cities of Suzhou and Changzhou, walking among the locals, trying to fit in and look inconspicuous (impossible with a crowd of American students moving as one) and doing our best to stay awake!

More pictures...

This is a mix of pictures from Suzhou, the first city we visited where we found beautiful gardens, cloistered off from the noise of the city.....a welcome relief! The photo to the right of my little girl in the garden was of "the torch", just as it passed! Thought I had a full on view of the bus carrying the torch, but oh well, that's what you get when you're running and trying to shoot video at the same time....

Our little girl traveled like a pro, she was a real trooper, needing only to be carried when she absolutely couldn't walk anymore!! The Chinese people loved her, they all wanted to pick her up and take her picture. Now, how to explain why she won't get this same attention back home? Hmm......
My husband, Cody, was a trooper too, after not sleeping, having jet lag and needing to be focused on pulling off a great concert each night, it was amazing he had the strength to walk around at all, let alone carry our little sack of potatos around!

One tired little tired daddy too!!! But it was all worth it a hundred times over!!!!

Friday, May 30, 2008


Returning to Kentucky via San Francisco, Chicago and Cincinnati gives one a lot of time to ponder, after you’ve become dimwitted by watching all the airline movies twice, and after you've tried unsuccessfully to make yourself comfortable in coach, you just begin to try and be alone with your thoughts. Here’s a few things that ran through my mind:

Lifting off from Beijing I felt very ready to be back in my own bed, eat my own cooking (go out and have Mexican food!) and hear my own language. Would I want to visit China again? No…....and yes. Being stretched as a human being beyond comfort zones I had become too comfortable with is a good thing, and going back to China someday, especially Beijing, is something many of us want to do. It's not only because now we know what to expect, like how to speak very basic Chinese and what NOT to try on the “lazy Susan”, but it's simply because Beijing is a beautiful, beautiful place. We learned how to get back to a hotel through a crowd, holding the hotel's business card with explicit Chinese directions firmly in hand, we genuinely enjoyed smiling a lot and saying, “Ni hao", we learned to be VERY patient with a culture that is so vastly different from our own, that even the very color you choose to wear can lead to misunderstandings. We saw, and learned to enjoy, that the people were going to stare at us intently wherever we went, but most importantly we learned to just accept that EVERYTHING is going to be different then expected! Knowing these little things made us feel more "a part of", but for me taking the nickel tour of the major sites in China is no way to understand China, for me, it was actually getting out into the smaller cities, walking the streets with the well-to-do and the beggar that brought the picture into sharp focus rather quickly. This is where I “experienced” China, the beautiful (and the not so beautiful) right along side each other. I came back to the hotel each day with the dirt of the streets on my feet, (it gets through every opening in your sandals), but it made me feel local and real instead of apart and privileged. Did I love the beautiful hotels we stayed in, absolutely I did, but why was I drawn to keep going back into the old sections of the cities? I think now it was to experience acceptance and tolerance in it’s entirety. I wanted to make sure I “got” this place, felt it’s pulse and touched it's soul along the way. I’ve already written how my soul has been touched by these people, but what I wanted to know was that I could walk unafraid in a foreign place with nothing but acceptance in my heart for all I saw there. I accepted the fact that the men spit everywhere on the streets with complete gusto, that mothers don’t put their babies in diapers, and if need be, let the child pee right on the street. I accepted that not every face was going to smile at me every time, that every child was not going to run at me with joy, as if to say, “Welcome”, I accepted that my expectations of cleanliness, order and driver safety were not going to be met by every person I encountered here. But it was when I “let go” of my notions and ideas altogether…..then, and only then, did the magic happen. The veil lifted and I saw the commonality of us, food, children, a living space, and no matter what or where, a green living plant of some kind hanging off the front door, these things, these universal things make us the same at the core.....and be validated and to know we matter. People of China, from your big, beautiful, mind boggling cities, to your dirt poor road alleyways, I honor you all....every last bit of it! Every single one of you that I encountered these last ten days was the perfect teacher for me, because every time I felt a sense of hesitation, (a comfort zone cracking wide open) I knew THIS was where I needed to experience transcendence, THIS is where I needed to stretch and grow. China, I hope I served you well, you certainly served me just by being yourself, you broadened me more then you could know and I come away from this trip with a profound sense of gratitude for everything I have. I truly have been humbled by this experience and I sincerely thank the University of Kentucky, my husband, and the School of Music, the US/Chinese Cultural and Educational Foundation, and most of all, I want to thank the fantastic members of the Wind Ensemble for their friendship, enthusiasm, willingness to cooperate (always) and for their phenomenal musical talent, which moved the hearts of the Chinese people. This trip was for you and it was a joy to experience China through your eyes as well! Many thanks go out to all involved for having me participate in this small capacity.....I am forever grateful! I love you all.....

There will pictures from China posted a little later today, between extreme jet lag and having some of the software not respond accordingly, the techincal difficulties prevented me from getting them posted sooner. The intent was to have pictures posted each day along with a blog entry, but alas, the troublesome Internet connections we experienced in China prevented that from happening in a timely manner. By now, I'm sure, most of you have seen your own son or daughter's personal pictures of the trip, but there will be a few more pictures posted ASAP........until then,



May 30th 2008
Nicholasville, Kentucky

Thursday, May 29, 2008

We're back.....

We are finally back and with very little delay with the four airports we traveled through today. We are totally whipped out and thrilled to be going to sleep in our own beds! On Friday....tomorrow, I think, yes....tomorrow (forgive me, what day is it?) I will post more pictures from the trip and an epilogue of sorts to sum up the whole experience. In a was incredible!

So, more tomorrow after I've had a good night's sleep and a gorgeous cup of fresh ground coffee in the morning!! I'll tell ya, it's the simple things.....


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bye, Bye Beijing

Today is our last day in China, so by now some of us are either saddened the time has gone by so quickly, or many are ready to get back home....I fall somewhere in between. This day provided us with some of the most memorable experiences of the whole trip. Visiting Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City is overpowering in it's depth, breadth and spirit. You stand there surrounded by, I don't know, seemingly millions of people, just to realize you are in the world's largest public square. You close your eyes and remember that brave boy, all those years ago, standing up to the tanks as they tried to overtake his China. Standing on this spot in history fills you with a sense of the unflinching spirit that resides in every single human being. "We shall overcome...." Yes, we do, and we will again whenever our sense of freedom and choice, wherever we live, are threatened. Many goose bump moments while standing there taking it all in. Walking just across the square you are faced with the face of Mao and The Forbidden City, once forbidden and now open to millions. You have no idea how big this place is! It could easily be called the "Never Ending City", it goes on and on, layer after layer of ornate courtyards, ancient stone steps, the Emperor's chamber, the Emperor's resting room, the Emperor's wedding house, the Emperor's closet...yes, his closet which is big enough to hold the world's supply of clothing for the next 100 years. You keep telling yourself you are inside a place in history.....this secret, forbidden palace with it's serene gardens, twisted, gnarled trees and you close your eyes and imagine a young Emperor sitting under this tree, contemplating the weight of the world he must have felt were on his shoulders way back when. Just then you are startled back to 2008 with a street hawker holding watches and keychains in your face, "Boo yao" I say...("don't want").... and you start moving again with the crowds. Finally we come out the other side of The Forbidden City, back on the 21 century streets that pulsate with the rhythms of modern Beijing. And let me say right here, Beijing is absolutely beautiful! I was completely and pleasantly surprised to find it so clean, efficient and friendly, again a pre-conceived notion was busted wide open (I love when that happens!). The landscaping in this city is pure joy, colorful flowers bursting out of every nook and cranny. The smog was less in Beijing, something I found very surprising, so you could see much farther then any of the other cities we visited. We also didn't hear the ever present honking horns like we did in Suzhou and Changzhou, horns that are used as a driving tool to prevent collisions, instead of honking just as you are about to hit something! This was a refreshing respite after all the deafening noise! Driving past the Olympic venues was thrilling, seeing the tower where the torch will burn, seeing where the athletes will be housed (the building is shaped like a torch!), viewing the stadium where the opening ceremonies will be held and getting to see the "Aqua Pod" where the swimming events will be, (which by the way glows blue at night), was simply an honor I never thought I would get to experience in my lifetime. That is what strikes me the most about this trip to China, this is a once in a lifetime event for most of us, so it is an honor no matter how you look at it. I think it is a gift to have your world turned upside down, to have your senses engulfed with foreign sights and sounds, to be completely out of your element, surrounded by a language I know I'll never be able to decipher, and to come out the other end whole, enriched, blessed. I was blessed by this trip, blessed insofar as I allowed myself to be blessed, for it was when I suspended my notions, gave up the idea I was in control, allowed the "free fall" of being in a totally different place then anything I have ever experienced, only then did I find the gifts China holds in her hands. It was the beautiful children running up to me, smiling, waving, saying "Ni hao", it was in the weathered face of an elder whose hands I reached out and touched briefly, it was in the giggles of the uniformed school girls as they shyly watched us taking pictures....what on earth did they think of us? It was in the relieved laughter when I made myself understood, through sign language, about how to get to where I wanted to go when I got lost briefly. It definitely was in the power of the music that was played, uplifting, soaring, transforming for audiences and band members alike. The gift also came on days when it was unbearably hot and sticky, walking the streets with all manner of humanity and knowing I was a part of a bigger picture. China's gifts were the unexpected lunch we had today in the most beautiful of restaurants with the most beautiful of young ladies catering to our needs, it was reflected in the perfect cup of tea made by delicate hands and poured with grace. I felt humbled to shake the hands of the military commanding officers at the concert tonight, officers who called us "dear friends", smiling broadly, warmly and genuinely. Goose bumps are a gift, it's when your soul recognizes that something extraordinary is happening to you, it's when you are in the presence of greatness, it's when I heard the "The Stars and Stripes Forever" played tonight in a way I've never heard it before, it's being proud to be an American, and proud to be in China where we felt pure, unadulterated love....with no strings, no boundaries and no barriers in expressing that friendship. The UK Jazz Ensemble were the rock stars of the group, pure jazz, swinging, melodic and way cool! The UK trumpet professor played the purest tones ever heard from a horn, they were lilting, lifting ever upwards. And my dear husband, Band Director extraordinaire (you don't mind if I gush a bit do you?) held everything together seamlessly, magically and without much sleep to boot! As I heard tonight, "We are different countries, but the same family", I thought, yes, we are one, we are related and this experience will stay with me the rest of my life, and no doubt serve as a springboard for anytime I feel the need to break through a barrier of my own making. The world is in need of our love and tolerance, the world needs music and friendship and laughter, so if I can go and travel across the world and find it in Beijing, China......I can certainly find it in my own backyard and give it freely to my neighbor. It's all relevant, it all goes hand and hand, heart to heart, for China taught me this in full living color in 10 days flat! Thank you all for coming along on this trip with me, we leave for the US tomorrow morning, and barring any travel glitches, we will be home soon. I'll post some final concert pictures after our return and some final thoughts too, so I hope you enjoyed this small glimpse into a fascinating country that has enriched my life, and I feel, made us all better people in the process! Namaste and blessed!

India on the Great Wall of China

Reporting from Beijing, this is India Stewart, filling in for Cindy "Momma" Stewart-Birdwell as she was a wee bit under the weather.

I felt pretty bad about leaving Momma at the hotel as we went galavanting off to one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. I don't actually know that it is one of the Wonders, but it outta be. I fell asleep as the bus left the hotel, looking out o'er the mass of cars and bikes and people squeezed in between huge buildings and smog. I woke up to mountains of green, the classic landscape that is featured on those Chinese silk paintings. The lush, jagged peaks were lost in the mist (well...smog, either way, the effect was nice). As our bus navigated through a sea of other buses, I struggled to see past the light poles and street signs, trying to catch a glimpse of that thin white line squiggling up the mountainside. That's the crazy thing about this country, epitomized at its most famous landmark. Everything is so insanely mashed together. The Great Wall of China, an amazing piece of history that can be SEEN FROM SPACE, is crawling with tourists and hawkers and scary bathrooms, BUT IT IS STILL INCREDIBLE!! As we start up the first of what someone counted as more that 1500 steps, we're all the same. You and me and the African men in their suits and the monks in their robes and the German, French, Italian, and the who-knows-where-else families all. We're all trying to make it as far as we can. Climbing up, I had to keep my eyes down, watching where I was going, trying not to stumble on the uneven steps. Breathe deep, keep going, make it to the top. Every few minutes, I'd stop and look back at how high I'd come, how far I had to go. I could see the hordes of people moving upward, heads down so not to stumble. Stopping and sitting on the steps to breathe, gulp some water, snap some pictures, and just take it in. We're climbing the Great Wall of China, can you believe it? Everywhere, faces of all different nationalities doing the exact same thing. Keep climbing. The higher I got, the less people I saw. The Climb weeds out the men from the boys, the women from the girls. Someone whooped from up ahead. "The one thousandth step!!" Keep climbing, can't be far now. Those Chinese guards who manned the signal fires must have been some seriously buff guys. Gotta keep them Huns out ya know. Keep climbing, can't be far now. The Climb is deceptive, you think you're almost there then, oh! there's more. But nonetheless, we keep climbing. Keep breathing and for goodness sake, keep taking pictures. The view from the top is just fantastic and it is the Great Wall of China for pete's sake.

I brushed my hair on top of the Great Wall of China. Countless others have carved their names into the rock. Chinese characters, English, is that Finnish? As I wandered around taking in the view (honestly, trying to make my legs stop shaking), I couldn't help but think, "Dude, this is the Great Freaking Wall of China, how insanely cool is that?" How many languages does that translate into?

Keep Climbing.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Beijing express

A couple of days have passed with a blur of activity. Two days ago we bused to Yangzhou for a concert Monday evening, we were provided with daytime accomodations to rest and change for the evening concert. As usual, the band's performance was stellar, the audience was enthusiastic and responded with roaring applause. It's important to remember many have not heard music like this before, but the rapt attention on the faces of the sold out crowd was proof the band touched something deep in the people. Wherever we go we get the attention of everyone on the street, some completely stop to stare at us. It's quite charming when you see a stoney faced Chinese lady staring at you, with what would seem to be disapproving concern, just to have her break out in the most open smile once you simply smile and wave at her! Again, the knee-jerk reaction is to think some of the people are not interested with interacting with us, but if you extend yourself with a cheerful "Ni Hao" the smile you get is heartwarming. With the millions of people out everyday on the streets of China, I made it a point to look into the eyes of every single person I came into contact with, people I feel connected to on a deeper level, deeper then language, skin color and cultural differences. For me, a silent "Namaste" and a smile are my small way of extending love to these beautiful people. The children here are precious, seeing the families out with their one and only "allowed" child riding a moped, playing in the parks or shopping, gives one pause. I can only imagine how revered that child must be to their family, and I haven't seen any parents use harsh discipline on their child since being here. They tend to speak softly to the children, a respectful and refreshing way to encounter parenting, I must say. After the concert in Yangzhou we headed on the bus to board the 10:40 p.m. train to Beijing. This, all along, was the most cause for concern for me. If you read the descriptions of overnight train travel in China, they range from "not too bad" to "uncomfortable" to "never again", so I didn't know what to expect. Well, getting ready to board the train is absolute chaos! Hold your carry-on bag tight, hold your ticket tight, hold your child's hand even tighter and go with the flow. People in the train station moved as one gigantic mass, keep walking, try to shield yourself from the constant sharp, high pitched whistles blown at every turn, (I think at one point my ear drum nearly blew out), and know this is only temporary. While I don't want to dwell on my personal experience on the over night train, let me just say I didn't sleep at all, and our four person compartment inadvertently (due to a reservation snafu) had another gentleman sleeping right in their with us, the movement of the train and the constant cigarette smoke wafting about served to make me nauseated for about 12 hours. The train did me in, but it was apparent the students had a great time (ahh...youth!) taking pictures, losing sleep and having an experience they can tell of for days to come! I got off the next morning using all my strength to get through the crowds, hold on to my child and follow in the direction my husband was leading. It was also very hot outside with Beijing experiencing 90 plus degrees the last few days. After we got to the hotel (where the water is directly from a natural hot spring, but you need to let the water run several minutes just to get it barely warm) I was grateful to get into the room and collapse. Unfortunately, the turnaround time to get back on the bus to tour The Great Wall was only an hour, so I sadly had to miss seeing The Wall so I could sleep, yes, it was that bad, I missed the The Great Wall of China in order to sleep! Writing that now sounds so lame, but I had literally hit my own "wall" and I don't think it would have been very appreciated, or pretty, to have had to hold me up and make me walk the steep steps, for I'm quite sure I would not have been able to navigate on my own. I'm going to have my intrepid daughter, India, provide the details of her impressions of The Wall in a post later today. She's a wonderful writer who can convey images better then anyone I know, so she will fill in the gap her mother made by needing to sleep! Later in the evening though I did manage to come back to life enough to attend the Chinese acrobat show, and so glad I did! This was like nothing I've ever seen in person. Now I've seen the Shanghai acrobats on a PBS special once, but to see them in person is beyond belief. You just sit there dumbfounded and say "Wow"! The vivid colors, costumes and acts overtake your senses, make you wish you were better at yoga, and for an insane second make you consider taking your bike out of the garage at home and trying to ride it with eight people balancing on your shoulders! "Do Not Try This At Home, These are Highly Trained Individuals" should be the sign posted for sleep deprived tourists like me! The most amazing thing I saw was the act where a masked person changes the color and design of their mask several times in a row, with merely a quick nod of their head, flash....and the face has changed to something totally different! Absolutely amazing, and I would love to know how they did it, it was truly beyond belief! Another interesting sight at the show was all the Buddhist monks that came for the performance! What a sight to see a bus load of monks with digital cameras! We took pictures of them and they didn't seem to mind. There isn't really a way to act cool and nonchalant when you are taking pictures of monks, you just tend to think, "I've got to get this" and away you shoot! What was even more interesting was the monks in the theatre taking pictures of the beautiful costumed girls walking up and down the aisles with DVD's of the performance for sale! And they took A LOT of pictures of these girls, it was rather cute to say the least! The evening made up for the lost day I had, and since my daughter took a lot of pictures of The Wall, I'll post a few here later today.

Today is going to be tours of The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and Olympic venues. The final concert will be tonight, so stay tuned as we come to the end of our tour of The People's Republic of China. A long tour with many memories and many high points, but the thought of home sounds pretty good about now, so we will formally bid China adieu tonight and embark on a long journey home tomorrow......It's been grand!